Chicago Sun-Times
with sports reporters Chris De Luca and Gordon Wittenmyer

30 years later, closure for Lee Elia

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The White Sox were ``winning ugly'' in 1983.
The Cubs? They were dealing with a different kind of ``ugly.''
It came in the form of a profane outburst by their manager after a particularly frustrating 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers 30 years ago today.
Long before the era of social media, Lee Elia's post-game tirade to reporters criticizing Cubs fans managed to become instantly legendary.
Radio reporter Les Grobstein had his tape recorder on, and the rest became history.
``I knew we had something, but to think about this 30 years later...I'd have just hoped we'd all be alive and healthy 30 years later,'' Grobstein said.
Elia, now 75 and a special assistant to Atanta Braves general manager Frank Wren, gave countless interviews through the decades about the day he regretted.
And his baseball life went on, even after he was fired later that summer as Cubs manager.
He managed the Phillies for parts of two seasons in 1987 and 1988. He spent time managing in the Phillies farm system in the 1990s, and he was a major league hitting coach into the next decade, working for the Baltimore Orioles in 2006 and the Seattle Mariners in 2008.
That was five years ago, the 25th anniversary of his infamy.
And the year when Elia finally found peace.


Keith Moreland remembers getting beer thrown at him as he walked off the field that day, Elia right behind him.
``I got angry, started to lunge, and he said `go on,' and all the way down the line he was just ranting and raving. I thought he was mad at me,'' the Cubs radio analyst said.
It was the fans Elia was angry at. His rant moments later was triggered by a question from an out of town reporter asking if he thought the fans were still backing the team.
``There's no question that if it happened today, he would have been fired that night,'' said Bob Ibach, then the Cubs director of media relations.
In fact, general manager Dallas Green was ready to dismiss Elia after hearing the tape--and would have but for a chance circumstance that had the still manager in his office when Green called.
``There were no cell phones of course, and Lee told me later he had left because he was supposed to be a celebrity umpire for his daughter Tania's softball game,'' Ibach said. ``But he left his keys in his office, came back and heard the phone.
``Had he left, Dallas would have fired him that night.''
Instead, a mortified Elia listened to the tape and realized what his words sounded like.
``Lee told me years later `I was never good at math,' '' Ibach said, Elia cursing ``15 percent of fans'' when he was thinking about those 15 to 20 he had just encountered.
Moreland said the players learned about the rant by the time they were leaving the park.
``I knew there was an explosion, but we didn't know of the scope until later,'' he said.
Ibach tried to defuse the mess, getting Elia to appear an hour later on the late Jack Brickhouse's radio show.
``It gave him a chance to apologize, and I like to think that helped,'' Ibach said.
But in the years that followed, Elia became the butt of jokes and object of scorn.
``Instantly, we all felt for him, even then,'' said Moreland, who first played for Elia in the minor leagues and later with the 1980 World Champion Phillies. ``I felt for him because you knew that [stigma] was hard. It's hard to overcome that. I felt bad for him, no doubt.''
Elia's torment was painful for his friends.
``He would tell me `I don't want this weighing on my conscience. I need to do something to put a positive spin on it,' '' Ibach said.
It was Ibach's idea to use the 25th anniversary to do that.
Ibach and Roger Dewey, the owner of A & R Collectibles, came up with the idea of a specially autographed ball and case, complete with a 20-second excerpt of the rant--but also with Elia's new message:
``the 40,000 fans who fill this ballpark every day and work hard for a living are no nickel-and-dimers. They deserve a championshp. They're the real Chicago Cubs fans. AND PRINT IT!''
The ``Lee Elia Unplugged'' set sold for $89.95--but the proceeds went to the Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities, long a favorite charity of Elia, a prostate cancer survivor.
``It was a good cause, but it also gave him a chance to show he really loved Chicago,'' Ibach said.
Elia came to Chicago to promote the sale, meeting the media at Harry Caray's, and especially with Grobstein.
``We had made peace long before that,'' Grobstein said. ``In fact, a few years after [the rant] when he was managing the Phillies, he got mad at me, but he admitted later it was because they were going through a bad road trip.''
Elia went to the Cubs-Brewers game after the media event, though Ibach still regrets that the Cubs brass kept their distance.
``That night, after all the interviews and the game, we were at the hotel having a drink and Lee said to me `I wonder how the fans feel about me.' And at that moment, we look up at the television and they were saying ``we've done a poll asking `do you forgive Lee Elia?' Back with the results after this. '
``He sat there, nervously waiting, and it came back on and it said `nearly 80 percent forgive him.'
``He had tears in his eyes. He said `Bob, I was hesitant to do this, but now I'm so thankful I did.'
``It gave him closure.''

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