Lee Elia called from a car chauffeuring him to his next appearance Monday. It was 2:40 p.m. in Chicago, and he already had done five radio shows and held court for a crowd at Harry Caray's steakhouse. He's 70, and it was a lot to pack into eight hours.
"Oh, heck," he said, "it's been quite a day."
Uh, this is Lee Elia, right?
Sure as heck was, and it sounded odd, because the Lee Elia the world knew did not say heck. He did say something that ends with the same two letters, begins with an "F" and … well, you've got a one-in-26 shot at figuring out the other letter.
Twenty-five years ago Tuesday, he screeched 37 derivations of it over a 3-minute, 11-second tirade (Editor's note: Content contains explicit language that may offend.) against Chicago Cubs fans, a rant that lives on through the magic of MP3 and captures a man who bottled up his anger, let it fester and then, one day, could take it no longer.
Now, after years of running from his words, Elia is celebrating them with a tour around Chicago and accompanying memorabilia that will benefit cancer research. Though not Shakespearean in eloquence, Elia's unloading remains legendary because it was so raw and venomous. It could be set to music and recast as a song about a man who had his heart broken 37 bleeping times.
Such feelings abound with regards to the Cubs, whom Elia was managing in 1983. The year before, in his first season, they finished in fifth place, and in his second they slumped to a 5-14 start. While Elia became inoculated to the boos, he couldn't ignore the fans' ripping Larry Bowa and Keith Moreland following the 14th loss. When he returned to his office, four reporters awaited, completely unaware they were in a cartoon world, that Elia's skin would be turning green.
"For that one moment, somebody triggered something," Elia said. "I'd already built up all my frustrations prior to walking into that locker room. And it just came out. I don't think the Hulk could've come in there and stopped me once I got rolling."
Later that night, when summoned to general manager Dallas Green's office and played a tape of what he said, Elia bowed his head in shame. He barely remembered any of it.
Not the beginning: "I'll tell you one (bleeping) thing, I hope we get (bleeping) hotter than (bleep), just to stuff it up them 3,000 (bleeping) people that show up every (bleeping) day. Because if they're the real Chicago (bleeping) fans, they can kiss my (bleeping) ass right downtown – and print it!"
Nor the middle: "The (bleepers) don't even work. That's why they're out at the (bleeping) game. They oughta go out and get a (bleeping) job and find out what it's like to go out and earn a (bleeping) living. Eighty-five percent of the (bleeping) world is working. The other 15 come out here."
And definitely not the end: "So what I'm tryin' to say is don't rip them (bleeping) guys out there. Rip me. If you wanna rip somebody, rip my (bleeping) ass. But don't rip them (bleeping) guys because they're giving everything they can give. Once we hit that (bleeping) groove, it'll flow. And it will flow."
Flow it did, right into Chicago's airwaves, courtesy of Les Grobstein, the radio reporter bold enough to tape Elia's musings. The recording circulated around the state, then the country, then the world. Elia had done something that would define him until the day he died and long after it, and he'd done it in one off-the-cuff, breathless, George Carlin-at-the-Improv stroke of brilliance.
"It would've been impressive had there been some kind of a plan to it," Elia said. "The thing that amazes me is it just kept going on and on and on.
"It's not like I'm a Phi Beta Kappa."
For the last 20 years, with the Internet spreading the lore and turning him into a mythical linguist, Elia had managed to avoid listening to the recording. He keeps a copy locked in a box at his house in Florida but hasn't bothered to open it. Too much history. Though the Cubs improved, Elia still got fired in late August. His record with the Cubs was 127-158. Green blamed Elia for the lack of success. Elia understood the underlying reason.
It was "the tirade," as Elia calls it, and finally, after two decades, he couldn't help himself this week, not when he pulled up a Chicago Sun-Times story on the Internet and saw a link begging to be clicked. He sat there with his wife of 28 years, Priscilla, and didn't know quite how to react at first.
"We just looked at each other and roared," he said.
Embracing it came slow to Elia, who has stayed in baseball and serves as an advisor to Seattle Mariners manager John McLaren. He didn't want to be the guy who lost it. But he was, and the sooner he realized it, the sooner he could move on.
So he planned Monday's tour and opened a Web site selling balls with a special signature:
AND PRINT IT!
Part of the proceeds will go to Chicago Baseball Cancer charities – Elia is a prostate cancer survivor and lost his father to cancer – and a cut to Elia, who finally figured out a reason to appreciate that day 25 years ago.
Driving through Chicago, the memories returned. It's a different city now. Wrigley Field has lights and the majority of the bums Elia criticized have been forced out by higher ticket prices. And yet the citizens of Chicago still recognize Elia, still greet him with an F-bomb and a smile.
They have forgiven. Who could forget?
"There's been a lot of real warmness," Elia said. "I don't think there will ever be complete closure on this, but coming back to Chicago, doing this tour, seeing everyone – it's probably as close as it's going to get."
He laughs now. If he were managing today and pulled a stunt like that, he'd be gone on the spot. Others have tried to match him. Hal McRae threw a telephone. The NFL's Jim Mora yelled "Playoffs!" Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy slobbered all over himself. None came close to Elia.
"The last two days, I've learned a few things," Elia said. "I can honestly tell you that MF is not a part of my vernacular. Everyone thinks that. And people ask me what my favorite part is. I won't lie. There are a lot. But the best? No question.
"And print it."
- Lee Elia