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In memoriam: Don Zimmer

Don Zimmer

Don Zimmer, who over the course of a 66-year baseball career virtually defined the term of baseball lifer, passed away last night. He was 83.

Zimmer’s career began with a bang in 1949 after being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, with the beginning of a minor-league career that included an astounding 10 steals of home (out of 63 total steals in 123 games) while playing for the Hornell Dodgers of the P.O.N.Y. League (now the NY-Penn League). He ended up playing 12 seasons in the majors with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, and Washington Senators, earning a spot on the second 1961 All-Star team (which didn’t mean a lot, apparently; he was left exposed in the offseason in the expansion draft and ended up beginning the 1962 season with the Mets) and earning two World Series rings during his stint with the Dodgers.

After ending his career in Japan, he moved easily into the coaching ranks, hired to manage the Buffalo Bisons (Class AAA; International League) during that team’s tumultuous end at War Memorial Stadium. After managing stints in Indianapolis, Knoxville, Key West and Salt Lake City, he earned his first MLB job as manager of the San Diego Padres in 1972. He managed 13 seasons in the majors with the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs, notching a 885-858 (.508) record and earning National League Manager of the Year honors in 1989 after guiding the Cubs to a NL East divisional title. His best two managerial campaigns, however, never yielded a title:

In 1977 his Red Sox finished 97-64, good for third in the AL East, and in 1978 the BoSox tied with the Yankees at 99-63, leading to a one-game playoff featuring the legendary Bucky Dent home and a Yankees win, with the team eventually winning the World Series over the Dodgers.

He coached or managed nine different MLB team – Rays, Expos, Padres, Red Sox, Rangers, Yankees, Cubs, Giants and Rockies – and had spent the last 10 seasons with the Rays, both as a bench coach and in recent years as a spring-training instructor, general pregame coach and community-affairs representative. His most notable time as a bench coach came at the side of Joe Torre, an eight-year stint that saw the Yankees win four World Series in five season (1996, 1998-2000).

But Zim was best known in the game as a man with a passionate love for baseball, who never drew a check outside the world of baseball. (He tried once; quit before noon.) He always drew a crowd eager to hear his latest story, whether it be next to a batting cage at spring training or at some sort of team event. He had seen it all: he met Babe Ruth, he played with Jackie Robinson, butted heads with George Steinbrenner, and he coached Derek Jeter.

“Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man,” said Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg. “Don dedicated his life to the game he loved, and his impact will be felt for generations to come. His contributions to this organization are immeasurable. I am proud that he wore a Rays uniform for the past 11 years. We will miss him dearly.”

“Like everyone in Major League Baseball, I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend Don Zimmer, one of our game’s most universally beloved figures,” said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. “A memorable contributor to baseball for more than 60 years, Don was the kind of person you could only find in the National Pastime.

“As a player, Don experienced the joys of the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers and the struggles of the ’62 Mets. In his managerial and coaching career, this unique baseball man led the Cubs to a division crown and then, at his good friend Joe Torre’s loyal side, helped usher in a new era in the fabled history of the Yankees.

“On behalf of Major League Baseball and the many clubs that ‘Popeye’ served in a distinguished Baseball life, I extend my deepest condolences to Don’s family, friends and his many admirers throughout our game.”

“I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me,” said Torre, now Major League Baseball Executive Vice President. “He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife Ali’s. We loved him. The game of baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man.”

Zimmer didn’t really have many enemies, except for pitchers: former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee disparaged his talents in Boston, calling him a “gerbil,” and Fergie Jenkins registered some complaints about Zimmer as well. The more prevalent view comes from Bob Ryan in a nice tribute to Zim:

I never met anyone who was more pure baseball than Don Zimmer. “Never drew a paycheck outside of baseball,” he loved to say. He did have a go at a regular summer job once. Zimmy turned in his stuff at lunchtime and never looked back. After that it was baseball, baseball, and more baseball until he died Wednesday night at the age of 83.

As a player, manager, coach, and adviser Don Zimmer was a part of baseball from 1949 until his dying breath. I would guess his funeral will be the occasion for a whole lot of story-telling.


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