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Odessa resident Lee Elia recalls when, as Cubs manager, he told Wrigley fans to get a job

Lee Elia will be watching Game 3 of the World Series on television Friday night, rooting for the Cubs while trying hard to forget one fateful afternoon at Wrigley Field that turned his tantrum into a pre-Internet meme.

"The bottom line is it's a long time coming," Elia said of the Cubs from his home in Odessa. "I wore that uniform as a utility infielder and fortunately as a manager, and I couldn't be happier for them."

Despite such graciousness, Elia, 79, stands as a reminder that baseball life on the North Side of Chicago was not always so sweet or mannerly. A spoilsport could argue that this very public, mutual love affair now taking place is not really steeped in warm tradition. The Cubs were not always the darlings of Chicago, and the fans were not always the most loyal bunch.

Many players and managers suffered slings and slurs from small, sometimes mean crowds at Wrigley that were infuriated by poor, second-division performances. Long before packed crowds celebrated the decision-making of Joe Maddon, there were tormented managers like Gene Michael, Don Baylor, Jim Marshall and the "college of coaches" employed in the early 1960s by owner Philip K. Wrigley.

Elia got the worst of it, though he admits some of the abuse was on him because of one particularly memorable episode. The Cubs, who played only day games at home back then, were off to a 5-14 start in 1983, which was his second year as manager, when he had a meltdown for the ages on April 29, 1983.

In a rap-like, three-minute tirade laced with profanities after a 4-3 loss to the Dodgers, Elia called the Wrigley fans "nickel-dime people," who "ought to get a (expletive) job and find out what it's like to go out and earn a (expletive) living.

"They talk about the great (expletive) support that the players get around here. I haven't seen it this (expletive) year."

That speech, delivered in the claustrophobic manager's office, was recorded by a reporter for WLS-AM radio, Les Grobstein, and immediately made available in both censored and uncensored form. It is preserved forever on YouTube, yet it only tells part of the story about a ballclub at civil war with its own fan base.

Elia fills in the details, which included fans harassing two of his players.

"We had lost to the Dodgers on Lee Smith's wild pitch," Elia said. "In those days, we had to walk all the way down the leftfield line to get into the locker room. As I'm walking with my paperwork after a tough loss, some fan gets all over Keith Moreland. Moreland goes toward the stands a foot or two, and security guards break it off.

"Then we walk another six or seven yards, where the tarp is," Elia continued, "and someone says something to Larry Bowa. He jumps in there. There's a lot of shoving. Then that's finally broken up. I've got all this on my mind."

Elia reached the clubhouse, but found his path blocked by members of the Los Angeles news media. When reporters started asking questions that Elia perceived as provocative, the manager lost it.

Recalling what happened next, and blaming his "managerial immaturity at that moment,'' Elia profanely challenged Cubs fans to meet him on Michigan Avenue.

"All my life I've loved Chicago,'' he said, looking back, "and there were a lot of pluses because of day baseball. But that's the thing I lived with."

The Cubs these days are remarkably popular in Chicago, having drawn 3.23 million fans this season, which means they averaged 39,906 fans in a revered bandbox that seats 41,268. In 1983, the Cubs averaged 18,268 and ranked 16th out of 26 teams in attendance. (Cleveland, that other baseball city in vogue, was dead last in attendance that season.)

Other years were even worse in Chicago. The Cubs drew 7,727 fans a game in 1965.

"Unfortunately, we would have games where we'd have only 6,000 or 7,000 fans, and probably rightfully so," said Elia, who is still a senior adviser for the Braves and looks forward to wearing a baseball uniform at age 80. "We did feel we were on the right track, and we got back to just five games behind at one point that season."

Elia was fired late that season, like so many other Cubs managers before and after him. The Cubs came within a game of the World Series the next year, 1984, after a trade by general manager Dallas Green that secured ace pitcher Rick Sutcliffe from Cleveland.

Wrigley Field was simply the wrong place at the wrong time for Elia, who has worked with a lot of the coaches and managers on both the current Cubs and Indians. He will cheer for the Cubs on Friday, like so many other native and adopted Chicagoans.

But Elia will also remember the times when nobody was cheering for him.

Odessa resident Lee Elia recalls when, as Cubs manager, he told Wrigley fans to get a job 10/28/16 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2016 10:17pm]
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