Don Zimmer…………True Baseball Royalty
It was learned earlier today that Tampa Bay almost lost one of their baseball icons over the holiday season. Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer was said to have suffered a small stroke during the holidays and is resting and recovering now with a great chance for total recovery. For this to be kept under the covers for this long is an amazement to me. Maybe it is because I view Zimmer as a living treasure trove of information, stories and is just plain fun to talk to about baseball, fishing and life in this area when the streetcars went down Central Avenue and the Vinoy was an abandoned building rotting away with time and not a 5-star resort nestled on the waterfront in St Petersburg.
That last statement might be interesting to some people in St Petersburg, but Zimmer has lived here, and most of the time in Treasure Island, Florida. Zimmer first fell in love with the area when he was a player with the New York Mets. He is as much an institution to this area and to the Rays as the Don Cesar Hotel, and even the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Of the people who have been associated with this franchise, he has to be one of the top 5 people listed on almost everyone’s list. The only other people in my top list with him are Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff, who might have a chance for the Hall of Fame starting in 2010.
I am here today to write a living tribute to the man also known as “Popeye” who has meant so much to the game of baseball and to fans of the American League East. Every team in this division has a Don Zimmer story or event. And it is for that reason that we should celebrate this amazing life and career on January 17th, which is also the date of his 78th birthday. So please feel free to remember and also visualize the times and career of this player and manager that has had a incredible life both on and off the diamond. Something you might not know about Zimmer, he wed his beautiful wife Soot ( Jean ) in Elmira, New York during a baseball game. Zimmer first began dating her in 10th grade.
Zimmer is as famous as a player as he is a manager in his years in baseball. Most people remember him as the feisty and skilled shortstop of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who broke into the majors in 1954. For the next 12 years he played in the majors, and found his first taste of success in 1955 with the World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers. But he also has dealt with adversity playing shortstop for the New York Mets in 1962 when they lost 120 games.
His time in baseball was almost cut short by a in 1953 while with the St Paul minor league squad. In a game, Zimmer was struck in the temple and did not regain consciousness for 13 days. With pressure building on his brain, he had hole drilled into his skull to relieve the building pressure and suffered from blurred vision and went from 170 to 124 pound while trying to regain his motors skills to walk and talk. He was only 22 years old when he was told his baseball career might be over for good.
But Zimmer rose above the complications to regain his motor skills and again play the game he loved for a living. He was again hit by a Cincinnati fastball in the cheek in 1956 and broke his cheekbone. Again he rose from the ashes and after a steel plate was inserted into his head, again trained to begin playing baseball. If nothing else, Zimmer was a test to the art of positive thinking and determination in this point in his career. Most people would have called it quits and went about a life after baseball. But not Zimmer, he still loved the game, and the people in it.
In 1958, Zimmer followed the Dodgers to their new home in Los Angeles, then moved from the Chicago Cubs to the New York Mets and the Cincinnati Reds in 1962. He then returned to the Dodgers in 1963 before finally moving onto the Washington Senators where he played his last game on the field on October 2, 1965. In his 12 years in the majors leagues, Zimmer appeared in 1095 games, compiled over 773 hits,79 homers, with 352 RBI’s and a lifetime .235 batting average.
During his playing career he got to go to the fall classic with the Dodgers in 1955 and 1959, and was selected for the National League squad of the 1961. Although his hitting was not his best aspect of the game, his fielding was never called into question, He was versatile enough to play third base, second base, shortstop , and even caught 33 games in his final season in Washington in 1965. Zimmer also had the honor of playing in 1966 in Japan with the Toei Flyers.
But it was in the dugout where the feisty ex-player gained the respect of everyone in baseball. He started out as most do, in the minor leagues until he first stood on the field as the Third Base Coach for the Montreal Expos in 1971. He did the same in 1972 with the San Diego Padres, but 11 games into the season, he was called upon to replace Preston Gomez as manager. Zimmer remained with the Padres until the close of the 1973 season when he was fired and he moved on to the Boston Red Sox for the next 2 1/2 seasons.
Zimmer was then a key figure in the 1975 World Series with the Red Sox when in Game 6 a ball was hit into shallow left field and Zimmer coaching at third base yelled to base runner Denny Doyle, ” No, No No” upon the catch in shallow left. Doyle misunderstood Zimmer and tried to score and was thrown out at the plate. The play helped set up one of the most memorable moments in Red Sox history as Carlton Fisk hit his memorable game winning home run later in the contest.
In 1976, the Red Sox did not come out confident and playing up to par, and Johnson was fired and Zimmer was given the reigns of the young Boston team. From 1977-79, the Red Sox won at least 90 games for Zimmer. His 1978 squad won 99 game, still the 4th best record by a Red Sox team in their hallowed history. But that same season, he was remembered more for the collapse after leading the A L East by as many as 14 games. Zimmer was the unfortunate skipper at the helm when the New York Yankees finally caught the Red Sox in a series dubbed, “The Boston Massacre.” That year the team went back and forth with the Yankees before Bucky Dent sent a stake through their hearts in a one-game playoff on October 2, 1978.
During that span Zimmer made a few questionable moves that were played out in the newspapers and in the stands. He did not get along with popular pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee and further stuck the dagger in their feud when he gave the last game start during the “Boston Massacre” series to a triple-A pitcher Bobby Sprowl instead of Lee. Zimmer also might have overused Carlton Fisk during that season starting him in 154 of 162 games. Fisk would begin to have sore knee problems and missed a bunch of time in 1979 due to arm problems.
Zimmer also kept a suspect Butch Hobson at third base even as elbow problems began to surface with the players throws to first base. Zimmer held firm to the belief Hobson could play until after a series of bad errors he was forced to call up Jack Brohamer to replace Hobson. The Boston debacle was not the last stage for Zimmer as he moved on to mange the Texas Rangers in 1981, then moved onto three stints with the Yankees and also the San Francisco giants between 1982 until 1989 when he took over the Chicago Cubs.
In that season, Zimmer won a divisional title for the Cubs, and was named the Manager of the Year by major league baseball. Zimmer returned to Boston in 1992 to help one of his former players, Butch Hodson with the club. Zimmer went onto coach on the first expansion staff of the Colorado Rockies in 1993, and in 1996 began a long tenure as the Bench Coach of the New York Yankees. He was on the bench for 4 of their World Series Championships. He also took over the Manager’s position when Joe Torre was recuperating from prostate cancer in 1999. Zimmer went 21-15 in Torre’s absence, then returned to his usual spot in the dugout again. Those game were never officially credited to Zimmer, who won over 906 games as a manager in the major leagues.
But the event that further made him into a legend was the game between the Boston Red Sox and his New York Yankees during the 2003 ALCS. When a brawl began on the field, Zimmer went out onto the Fenway field and was face to face with Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez who threw the nimble Zimmer to the turf by his warm up jacket. The scene became world famous and made Martinez an instant enemy to Yankee fans throughout the nation.
In another game, Zimmer was sitting on the bench when Chuck Knoblach hit a screaming foul ball into the dugout and got Zimmer flush on the head. Zimmer used the event to evike some humor as he came out the next day wearing an army helmet with “ZIM” written in it in white. Since his time with the Yankees, Zimmer has been the Tampa Bay Rays Senior Advisor helping the squad with expertise during Spring Training and he can often be seen down on the field in his Rays uniform during Batting Practice chatting with coaches’ and players’ daily.
Zimmer currently wears number “60”, for 2008 was his 60th year in professional baseball. Every season, Zimmer moves up one more uniform number. In 2009, Zimmer will be issued the number “61” jersey. During 2008, Zimmer was the last member of the Brooklyn dodger organization still serving in some capacity in baseball. Along with living in Seminole, Florida now with his wife, he is a proud author of 2 books, “The Zen of Zim” and ” Zim: A Baseball Life.”
Thank goodness that this past holiday season did not take this great warrior away from us. The guy truly believes he has more baseball to enjoy in life, and if you have ever had the pleasure to speak to this man about baseball, you can see the twinkle in his eye as he remembers some of the greatest moments in the game. Zimmer is recovering and is slowly getting back to his normal lifestyle.
With less than 30 days until the Rays head to Port Charlotte, Florida for the first time away from their old St. Petersburg training complex, Zimmer might not be at this years site for the first time in a long while. but the accent should be on him regaining his strength and his stamina so he can sit in the seat behind home plate again in 2009 and see his Rays again contend for the American League East title.
I can not imagine a year without Zimmer in the organization, but you know that it will come to and end at some moment in time. Hopefully we did not see the last of this great warrior as he threw out that first pitch before Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS. I truly think we have not seen the last of this great titan of the sport. He has risen before from worse odds to again smile and enjoy this great game. Hopefully his next seat will be within range of yelling at Rays Manager Joe Maddon and his players in 2009.