Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer, manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre watch the action from the dugout bench during Game 1 of the World Series against the Braves. (Lynn Johnson/SI)
Don Zimmer died Wednesday at a Dunedin, Fla., hospital, and baseball never will again be blessed with a character quite like him. Fiery, self-deprecating and sage, among countless other qualities, Zim, who was 83, left a sizeable legacy in each of his 13 big-league stops.
In New York, fans of a certain age might recall him as a promising Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop prospect whose potential never rebounded from a life-threatening beanball he took in the minor leagues in 1953 — and who was hospitalized following another such mishap in 1956 — but who nevertheless participated in the Dodgers’ only local championship in 1955.
The next generation could cherish his roster spot on the original 1962 Mets, one he relinquished after just 14 games when the Mets dealt him to his hometown Reds. Sixteen years later, Zimmer managed the opposing Red Sox as they fell to Bucky Dent and the Yankees in the one-game playoff to decide the American League East crown, completing a miraculous Yankees comeback against their rivals.
And his final great lap came in the Yankees pinstripes, as he served as Joe Torre’s bench coach for all four of Torre’s World Series crowns — 1996 and 1998-2000 — as well as the 2001 and 2003 pennants, the latter of which featured his memorable throw-down with Boston ace Pedro Martinez during the AL Championship Series.
Zimmer angrily quit the Yankees, taking public shots at George Steinbrenner, following that ’03 World Series loss to the Marlins — most of Zimmer’s departures could be labeled as contentious. Yet he kept getting the next job — in this instance, he joined the Rays as their senior baseball advisor — and eventually mended just about every fence, because industry people valued his wisdom, his humor and just that cartoonish mug.
No modern-time baseball senior citizen received more love in the form of bobblehead dolls, teddy bears and masks than the guy called “Popeye” because of his bulging forearms (plus, he kind of resembled the spinach-loving sailor, what with his chubby cheeks and all).
And we would be remiss by going any further without mentioning the stop that Zimmer tabbed as his favorite: Wrigley Field, where he piloted the Cubs to the 1989 National League East title by deploying an ultra-aggressive managing style. A squeeze play with the bases loaded, or even a hit-and-run, marked just another day at the office.
“He was not afraid to take risks,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi, perhaps the protégé whom Zimmer cherished most, said through tears Wednesday night after the Yankees’ 7-4 loss to Oakland at Yankee Stadium. “He was not afraid to get on anyone as a player, whether it was a superstar. He went with his gut sometimes. I think as a manager, you have to do that.”
An emotional Derek Jeter said what he appreciated most about Zimmer was “his attitude. He was really positive. It can be a long season.” Before each game, Jeter would rub Zimmer’s near-bald head for good luck.
Fittingly, Zimmer never fully retired from the game. Oh, he left his Rockies bench coach job in the middle of the 1995 season — in the middle of a game, for crying out loud — and called it a “retirement,” only to join the Yankees and Torre the next spring. His Rays gig allowed him to commute to Tropicana Field from his Tampa Bay-area home and travel only as much as he desired. He put on his uniform for pregame batting practice, offered his counsel and often retreated to the luxury suites, where he regaled fans with stories of his long journey through baseball. He wore uniform No. 66 this season to denote how many years he had spent in the game. He received a huge ovation from the Trop crowd on Opening Day this year. Sadly, his health declined for good just a couple of weeks later.
“He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game,” Torre, now an executive vice president with Major League Baseball, said of Zimmer Wednesday night in a statement. “The game was his life.”
As a young reporter, first with the Bergen Record then Newsday, I was fortunate enough to be up close to Zimmer for his Yankees tour with Torre — years 48-55 of his baseball odyssey. Once you hung around long enough so that he knew your face, Zim proved generous with his spin-free analysis and hilarious anecdotes. And he just had a knack for creating more memorable tales. Remember when he got hit by a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball during the 1999 postseason and showed up the next day wearing an army helmet bearing a Yankees logo?
These past few years, when Zim would come to the Trop during Yankees visits to say hi to pals like Girardi and Jeter, you knew there wouldn’t be many more of these reunions. Zim struggled to make it to the ballpark for night games, and to get around, after spending the day undergoing kidney dialysis.
My final Zim interaction occurred last July. I was in Tampa to cover Alex Rodriguez’s rehabilitation at the Yankees’ minor league complex, and I drove to St. Petersburg to see the Rays take on the Diamondbacks. While the Rays took batting practice, Zim sat in the stands next to his old pal Don Baylor, then Arizona’s hitting coach.
I waved to Zim, and he summoned me over and introduced me to Baylor. Then I left the two baseball men alone so they could talk some more. Zim looked so at peace, so content. Surely there was no place else he would have rather been at that moment.
Zim loved the game and the friends it gave him, and he loved talking about the game — and laughing — with those friends in stadiums. I’m sure I’m far from the only person whose lasting image of Zim will be of him doing precisely that.