Long Live the Zim!

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What do you get the guy who has witnessed over 66 years of baseball in his 83 years upon this great planet? Does he still have an unfulfilled bucket list?  This bit of baseball royalty has shaken hands with more than a few generations of ball players, celebrities and political dignitaries. A special baseball icon whose life we all should celebrate every year when January 17th, hits the calendar.

zinmmmmmmmmmmmmmOf course I’m speaking of the great Tampa Bay Rays Senior Advisor Don Zimmer who this past Friday celebrated his 83rd birthday and even as age takes some of his physical tools, his mind is still a steel trap and he seems to remember more than most of us forget about this grand game. I mean who else in MLB history has had a bear made of his likeness…and been a giveaway twice in a season!

We all know Zimmer has made the Pinellas county area his home for most of his baseball life and was a citizen of the beach community of Treasure Island as far back as when they had a toll booth, when the old Jolly Roger figurine stood mighty on Gulf Blvd., and the streetcars made their route reversals at Park Street and Central Avenue before cruising on back down Central towards the then Million Dollar Pier.

I bet Zimmer remembers the old Renaissance Vinoy Hotel in the 70’s when it was an abandoned building rotting away with time, and then got to witness the spectacular rebirth of the hotel into a premier 5-star resort nestled on the St. Petersburg, Florida waterfront and is every MLB team’s visiting oasis when they venture into the hamlet to play the Rays during the MLB season. 
 
Zimmer first fell in love with the Pinellas county region back when he was a player with the New York Mets. He is as much a “native” and local institution to the Rays Republic as the Don Cesar Hotel, or even the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Of all the people who have been associated with this Rays franchise since its infancy.

For that reason, I feel the only gift I can truly give to Zimmer at this moment doesn’t involve anything monetary or even crafted. It is something I feel strongly about and something. I’m going to write tribute to my personal favorite hometown guy and a man generations have affectionately known as “Popeye”.

I’m going to start off with something you might not know about Zimmer, he first began dating his lovely wife Soot (Jean) in 10th grade, and eventually married her upon a baseball diamond in Elmira, New York during a game. 

dfgtreZimmer is as famous as a ball player as he was as a Manager during his years in baseball. Most people remember him as the feisty and skilled shortstop of the Brooklyn Dodgers when Zim broke into the majors back in 1954. For the next 12 seasons he played in the majors, and found his first taste of success in 1955 when the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series.

Some people might not know that Zimmer also dealt with adversity while playing shortstop for the New York Mets in 1962 when the team lost 120 games.  And a lot of younger baseball fans might be shocked to learn his time in organized baseball was almost cut short in 1953 while Zimmer with the St Paul minor league squad.

During a game while with St Paul, Zimmer was struck in the temple and did not regain consciousness for 13 days.  With pressure building on his brain, Zim had holes drilled into his skull to relieve the building pressure and subsequently 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 at the time of the incident and was told by his doctors his baseball career might be over. 

But Zimmer rose above the complications to regain his motor skills and again play the game he loved. Zimmer again was hit by a Cincinnati fastball in the cheek in 1956, which broke his cheekbone. Again Zim rose from the ashes and after a steel plate was inserted into his head, trained tirelessly so he could begin playing baseball once again. If nothing else, Zimmer is the true example of the art of positive thinking and determination. Most people would have called it quits possibly after the second incident, and went onto a life after baseball. But Zimmer loved the game, and the people on and off the diamond encompassing it.

dtfyguhijo;l.,kIn 1958, Zimmer moved westward with the Dodgers in 1958 as the team relocated to their new vista in Los Angeles, California. Zimmer then moved from the Chicago Cubs to the New York Mets and then to 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 1,095 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.  Although hitting was not his forte, his fielding was never called into question over his career. Zim was a versatile player who could line up at third, second base, shortstop, and he even caught 33 games in 1965, his final MLB season in Washington. Zimmer pulled on a uniform one last time in 1966 playing for the Toei Flyers in Japan.

But it was in the dugout where the feisty ex-player gained even more respect around the baseball world. Zimmer started out alike most young aspiring Coaches do, in the minor leagues, and he finally got to step upon a MLB field again as the Third Base Coach for the Montreal Expos in 1971.  He again got to patrol the chalk lines in 1972 with the San Diego Padres, but 11 games into the season, Zim was called upon to replace Preston Gomez as the Padres Manager.  Zimmer remained with the Padres until the close of the 1973 season when he was fired and he moved onto the Boston Red Sox for the next 2 1/2 seasons.

tyrjhegaszxZimmer was a key figure for the Red Sox in the 1975 World Series when in Game 6 a ball was hit into shallow left field and Zimmer coaching at third base yelled to Denny Doyle to not run on the play, but Doyle misunderstood Zimmer’s barking and tried to score and was thrown out at the plate. The result of that Home Plate play helped to set up one of the most memorable moments in Red Sox history as Carlton Fisk hit his iconic game winning Home Run later in the contest.

In 1976, the Red Sox did not come out confident or playing up to par, so current Manager 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, at the time the 4th best record by a Red Sox team in their hallowed history. But that same season, Zim was remembered more for the collapse of the Red Sox after the squad lead the A L East by as many as 14 games.

 Zimmer was the skipper at the helm of the Boston ship 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 the Red Sox Nation’s heart during a one-game playoff on October 2, 1978.

re6t70pf8tyolDuring that period Zimmer made a few questionable moves that were played out in the newspapers and in the stands. Some also speculate Zimmer 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. 

Zim also did not get along with popular Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee and further infuriated their feud when he gave the start during the last contest of the “Boston Massacre” to a Triple-A pitcher named Bobby Sprowl instead of Lee.

Zimmer also kept Butch Hobson at third base even as elbow problems began to surface, especially with ineffective throws to first base. Zimmer held firm to the belief Hobson could play until after a series of bad errors when Zim was forced to call up Jack Brohamer to replace Hobson.

sdfffffvbnThe Boston debacle was not the last stage for Zimmer as he moved on to manage 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 Red Sox.  Zimmer was then on the 1993 expansion staff of the Colorado Rockies, and in 1996 began a tenure as the Bench Coach of the New York Yankees. He was on the bench for 4 of the Yankees World Championships.

Zimmer also took over the Yankees 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. 

xfhhjhThe event that further pushed Zimmer into another level of legend status was the 2003 ALCS game between the Boston Red Sox and his New York Yankees. When an on-field brawl began, Zimmer went out onto the Fenway grass and found himself face-to-face with Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez who then tossed the nimble Zimmer to the turf. The scene made Martinez an instant enemy to Yankee fans and empathically endeared Zimmer to baseball fans who did not wear pinstripes.

In another contest, Zimmer was sitting on the bench when the Yankees Chuck Knoblach hit a screaming foul ball into the dugout and got Zimmer flush on the head. Zimmer used the event to use some tongue-in-cheek Zim-style humor as he came out the next day wearing an army helmet with “ZIM” written on it in white. 

thSince 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 during the Rays regular season home contests in his Rays white or blue Rays jacket uniform during Batting Practice chatting with both team’s Coaches’ and players. 

Every season, Zimmer moves up his uniform number one more. In 2014, Zimmer will be issued the number “66″ jersey. Zimmer is the last member of the long gone Brooklyn Dodgers organization still serving in some capacity in baseball. 

Zim is a proud author of 2 books, “The Zen of Zim” and” Zim: A Baseball Life.” 

If you have ever had the pleasure to speak with Zimmer about baseball, you will instantly see the twinkle in his eye as he remembers some of the greatest moments in the game.

sdfghjkl,mWith less than 4 weeks until the Rays head to Port Charlotte, Florida, Zimmer should be again manning his customized golf cart greeting fans and players alike and spinning great tales of the game.  Thank you Zim for everything you have done for my hometown team and for this great game. Looking forward to see you at the Spring Training complex and I hope this post is a fitting birthday gift to a icon I feel blessed to see still giving of himself for the sake of the game.

Long live the Zim!

 

2 Comments

This was a great read…thanks for sharing.

Thank you for stopping by Gary. I truly view Zim as a treasure. From talking to him as a kid to hearing stories and advice now. The guy is one of those people who not only commands respect, but has earned it in spades.
Thanks again.

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