Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 5, 2014

A Baseball Man

The news came quietly on Wednesday evening. First a tweet from Jack Curry, former Yankees beat writer and current analyst for the team’s YES Network. Soon thereafter a story was posted on the New York Times website, confirming the news. At age 83 Don Zimmer had finally lost his twilight struggle with failing health. Before long reaction was pouring in from current and former players on many teams, and one began to realize the impact that a lifetime in a sport can have.

Zimmer was 18 when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949. He made his major league debut five seasons later, beginning a twelve-year big league career that saw him in six different uniforms (seven if one counts the L.A. Dodgers separately from Brooklyn). When his playing time in The Show ended, he spent a year in Japan and then two more as a minor league player-manager. Finally leaving the field of play to others he managed in the minors for three more seasons before joining the Montreal Expos as third base coach in 1971. So began more than four decades of constant work as a coach or manager for a total of nine different franchises. As a senior advisor to the Tampa Bay Rays, Zimmer’s team for the past decade and the final stop on his lifelong journey through the Great Game, he took to incrementing his uniform number each year to match his time in baseball. This spring, he wore number 66.

As a player Zimmer had a career batting average of just .235, hardly the stuff of legend. As a manager he won more games than he lost, especially in Boston where he posted a .575 winning percentage over five seasons and led the Red Sox to 90-plus win campaigns three years in a row. He was also named the NL Manager of the Year in 1989 after leading the Cubs to an unexpected division title. But Red Sox fans are more likely to recall the late-season collapse of Zimmer’s 1978 team; the year a 14 game division lead in July dissolved into a one game playoff against New York and Bucky Dent’s home run into the netting above the Green Monster. In Chicago, less than two seasons after that NL East title Zimmer was fired, as managers usually are.

Yet if his numbers are scarcely worthy of Cooperstown, his perseverance over decades, deep love of the game, and resolute commitment to his teams and his players made the man they called Popeye or simply Zim the archetype of a vanishing breed; the kind of participant any sport’s Hall of Fame ought to celebrate. Don Zimmer was a baseball man, pure and simple; he was a lifer. He never got a paycheck that wasn’t from a baseball team.  Consider what he experienced along the way.

He so loved the game that in 1951 he got married to his high school sweetheart in a ceremony at home plate before playing for the Class A Elmira Pioneers. Two years later he was nearly killed after being hit in the temple with a pitch while batting for AAA St. Paul. Doctors drilled holes in his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain and Zimmer was comatose for nearly two weeks. Soon enough thereafter, players were wearing batting helmets.

Zim was told his career was over after the beaning. Yet by the middle of the following season he was making his major league debut, substituting for Pee Wee Reese, Zimmer’s boyhood idol. The following season he hit 15 home runs in 88 games and was in the Dodgers starting lineup for Game 7 of the World Series; the day when Brooklyn residents could finally stop waiting till next year. Seven years later he was in another starting lineup in another Gotham borough. This time it was for the inaugural season of the Mets, a team that would lose 120 games. Zimmer presaged the team’s futility by going hitless in his first 34 at bats. Still later he played for the other expansion franchise of that time, the Washington Senators. Among my early Great Game memories are watching the lifelong infielder don face mask and shin guards to play 33 games behind the plate in D.C., a player willing to do whatever was needed to try to help his team.

As a manager he tasted success, if not ultimate victory, with two long dormant franchises at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. As the Yankees bench coach he was at Joe Torre’s side for the team’s great dynasty years at the end of the last century. Torre has always been quick to say that he ran virtually every managerial decision past Zimmer as the Yankees rolled to four titles in five seasons. At The Stadium Zim also mentored then-catcher Joe Girardi. A decade later it was Girardi at the helm when the Yankees again claimed baseball’s top spot in 2009; and it was Girardi who was moved to tears when speaking of Zimmer Wednesday night.

In 2003, his final season in pinstripes, Zimmer raced out of the dugout to join a benches-clearing brawl against the Boston Red Sox, only to have Pedro Martinez throw him to the ground. Zimmer apologized for the incident after, but even at the age of 72 his first instinct had been to stand up for his players. He left the Bronx after the Yankees lost that year’s World Series, hinting broadly that he was tired of being abused by the always-demanding George Steinbrenner. In a statement released late Wednesday night, Yankees managing partner Hal Steinbrenner called Zimmer “an original – a passionate, old-school, one-of-a-kind baseball man who contributed to a memorable era in Yankees history.”

He did that for the Yankees and for many other teams as well. In his 2004 book “The Zen of Zim,” written with Bill Madden, Zimmer wrote “All I’ve ever been is a simple baseball man, but it’s never ceased to amaze me how so many far more accomplished people I’ve met in this life wanted to be one, too. What a game, this baseball!” What a game indeed; and as always it will go on, another timeless season unfolding as summer steadily warms. But now it must do so without Zim, and because of that today the Great Game is a little less so.

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Responses

  1. The man should be inducted into Cooperstown for his overall body of work, sort of a life-time achievement award. He deserves it.


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