Former skipper Elia feels at home in Philly

Despite working for 10 teams, Philadelphia native closely tied to Phillies

Former skipper Elia feels at home in Philly

Lee Elia now works for the Braves. In more than 50 years in baseball, he's also worked in a variety of capacities for the Dodgers, Mariners, Cubs, Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Orioles and White Sox.

And yet, there may never have been more of a Philadelphia -- or Phillies -- guy.

Elia was born in Philadelphia. He graduated from Olney High School. He signed with the Phillies in 1958, and spent much of his playing career in their farm system.

Phillies alumni

Elia managed the big league club and managed eight years in the Minors, where he was named Manager of the Year in his league four times. He had two stints with the Phils, including 1980, when the franchise won the World Series for the first time. He scouted and also served as director of Minor League instruction.

"I love where I'm at with the Atlanta Braves. They treat me extremely well," Elia said. "At this point, I'm a senior advisor -- for player development. They all know that I cherish what they've accomplished as an organization.

"But I truly cherish what the Phillies accomplished, and I don't think that will ever come out of my body," Elia added. "I'll always love those people."

That's at least partly because the Phils have often interceded when Elia's life seemed to have reached a crossroad, often in unexpected ways.

It started early. After attending the Bordentown Military Academy, Elia had numerous scholarship offers. He was having a hard time deciding where to go, when the phone rang one day. On the line was Phillies owner Bob Carpenter, a man he'd never met, encouraging him to attend the University of Delaware.

"So I went to Delaware," said Elia, who now lives near Clearwater, Fla. "It was geographically good. I could take my dirty wash home every two weeks. But I never knew why he called. I wish he was alive so I could ask him."

After Elia broke his hip playing football as a sophomore, he decided to try a career in professional baseball. Three teams were interested: the Reds, Pirates and Phillies. Again, Carpenter stepped in.

"Every time I worked out in Connie Mack Stadium, they kept saying, 'Come back. Come back,'" Elia said. "After a while I said, 'I ain't coming back anymore.' Finally, Mr. Carpenter called me and dad down to the ballpark, and I signed with the Phillies. It was a great experience."

Elia played a part of the 1966 season with the White Sox and a handful of games for the Cubs in '68. But he mostly played at the Triple-A level until officially retiring after a truncated season in Eugene, Ore., in 1973.

The Phillies gave Elia his first chance to manage at Class A Spartanburg in 1975. By 1979, he had worked his way up to Triple-A Oklahoma City, winning the division. A week after the season ended, Phils manager Dallas Green called, offering Elia a chance to be the third-base coach of the big league club.

When Green went to Chicago to run the Cubs, Elia followed, and at 44, he became the Cubs' manager. That ended badly one afternoon when Elia's frustrations boiled over and he ripped into the fans in an obscenity-laced tirade. In those days, it wasn't common for reporters to use tape recorders. This day, one did. His rant has become a cult classic.

"I've been a blessed guy. I think the older I get, the more I realize how fortunate I've been," Elia said. "I just wish I was fortunate one more time when that guy with that bad day I had. I mean, a lot of great things have happened. You know, it hasn't decimated me in any way. But it would be better if I was remembered for something else. But what are you going to do?"

After that, the Phillies were there for Elia again, hiring him to be the bench coach for manager John Felske. When Felske was dismissed in June 1987, Elia was named the Phils' manager.

Within hours after being let go at the end of the 1988 season, the Phillies connection came through again. Green, now the Yankees' manager, called and asked Elia to be his third-base coach.

"After New York, I was really fried," Elia said. "I had been coaching third base and managed a couple clubs, and went through that that episode in '83. And I thought, 'I've got to put the body down.' And again, the Good Lord baled me out."

The Phillies offered him an opportunity to manage the Clearwater Phillies.

"I said, 'How lucky am I?' There was no ego involved," Elia said. "I was living in Clearwater. The ballpark was right there. It was perfect. It rekindled my enthusiasm."

After two years, Elia went to Seattle, where he was Lou Piniella's bench and hitting coach for six years. The Mariners were winning. It was the big leagues. Life was good.

Then Elia was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"I had just lost my dad a couple years earlier. I thought maybe it was just time to pack it in. So I told Lou I was getting out," he said. "And, again, the Phillies called me. They had an opening. Ray Shore had passed away, so I did Major League scouting for them. Then, out of the clear blue sky again, they called me up and said, 'You look like the kind of guy who should be in uniform. How about running the Minor Leagues for us?' And I did."

Fully recovered, Elia then made a decision he still wonders about.

"Then, at that point, I might have made a mistake," Elia said.

The chances to get back to the Majors kept presenting themselves for Elia. He went to coach with former Phillies manager Jim Fregosi in Toronto. After Fregosi was fired, Elia rejoined Piniella in Seattle, and then followed him to Tampa Bay. After Piniella retired, Elia went to Baltimore to coach for the Orioles.

"Maybe I should have stayed [with the Phils]. But I got seven more years in the big leagues," Elia said.

After one year in Baltimore, Elia decided he didn't want to coach anymore. He went to the Dodgers as a special assistant before moving on to the Braves.

Elia has done a lot, and so much of it is tied to the Phillies in some way. He looks much younger than 78, and after a lifetime of change, he has found contentment.

"Now I'm the happiest guy in the world," Elia said.

Paul Hagen is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.