Thursday, June 05, 2014

Don Zimmer, dead at 83, lived a life in baseball that is unrivaled

A huge figure in baseball, especially New York baseball, Zimmer leaves behind a legacy in the game he loved.

June 5, 2014

Don Zimmer managing the Cubs in 1991 (John Biever/SI)

There have been other baseball lives as amazing as Don Zimmer’s, that were as full of fun and history as his was, and the kind of hurt you can only get from something you love as much as he loved baseball. But try to remember one today, now that word comes out of Florida that Zimmy’s great baseball heart finally gave out, before he could make it to one more baseball summer.

There is so much to remember about him today, about how baseball nearly killed him with fastballs to the head, and how he was an old Brooklyn Dodger and an original Met; how he was the manager of the Red Sox when they blew that big lead in 1978; how he even won a division title with the Cubs in 1989 and was Manager of the Year.

But around here? Around here he will be remembered as the best top sergeant any Yankee manager ever had, Joe Torre’s top sergeant when Torre’s Yankees brought the winning back to the old Stadium. Oh, there was so much to the baseball life that began for Don Zimmer back in the 1940s, even a wedding that took place at home plate in Elmira, N.Y. a thousand years ago to his beloved wife, Soot.

And yet there is a generation of Yankee fans for whom the picture of Don Zimmer is the one of him on the first base side of the old Stadium, in the Yankee dugout, his hands on top of a baseball bat, staring out with bright eyes at seasons that will always be remembered around here, a wise-guy grin on a face that should have belonged to some old prizefighter, telling Torre that this might be the moment to take a chance.

“Joe didn’t need very much help from me,” Zimmy said to me one time. “People who don’t know what a great manager this guy is are the ones who should have their heads examined.”

Of course he was talking about the pitches he took to his own head. The first beaning resulted in blood clots and holes being drilled and four tantalum buttons being inserted in his skull, all of this causing damage to his eyesight.

But Zimmer came back. He kept doing that, the kid who was supposed to be a baseball star, who replaced Pee Wee Reese as the Dodger shortstop in Brooklyn and eventually got replaced himself by Maury Wills in Los Angeles.

He started the magic year for the Dodgers, 1955, at short when Reese was hurt. Then he got hit again, in the face, in ’56, and this time the damage was more severe. Zimmy, who would later see so much in the games he was watching, would never see a pitched baseball as well as he wanted to ever again.

The game could still not run him off, or keep him down. Somehow, maybe because a character like the guy who went through more than 60 years in baseball being called Popeye had to end up with the ’62 Mets, starting third baseman for Casey Stengel on the day the Mets opened for business. Think about all the third basemen they went through over the years, until that position finally became the permanent property of David Wright. Nobody ever forgot that the first one was Don Zimmer.

With Yankees captain Derek Jeter closing in on 3,000 hits, Tampa Bay senior adviser Don Zimmer (l.) - the former Yankees bench coach - was on hand for a four-game series in the Bronx. (Linda Catoffo/Daily News)

Then he was managing the Red Sox in ’78 and the Cubs a decade later and there were other stops and then he was with Joe Torre, a couple of baseball lifers, one a Brooklyn kid and the other an old Brooklyn Dodger, both of them having been wounded along the way by the game they both loved the way they did. Then they were in New York, and they had Jeter and Bernie and Mo, Pettitte and Posada and Paul O’Neill and the rest of them. Then they had the kind of team they had both been looking for; Zimmy had just been looking longer.

When Torre had prostate cancer, Zimmy became the Yankee manager for a while. When a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball hit him in the dugout one day, Zimmy came back the next day wearing an Army helmet. You think one foul ball was going to take him out?

Joe Torre is now the Executive Vice President of Major League Baseball, and this is what he said on Wednesday night about the passing of his dear friend Don Zimmer:

“I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me. 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.”

Good and tough. There he was at Fenway Park, Game 3 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, the series even at one game all. Pedro Martinez hit Karim Garcia, things developed from there, Roger Clemens came up and in on Manny Ramirez, both benches cleared, and then over by the Red Sox dugout you saw Zimmy, in his 70s by then, going right at Pedro Martinez and getting thrown to the ground.

Jason Giambi joked afterward that he couldn’t believe how fast Zimmer got across the field to get in the middle of things. Zimmer didn’t have much to say about the fight afterward, other than this: “We won the game.”

He was always such splendid company at a ballpark. He dies now at the age of 83. Of course he is survived by a game he loved as much as anybody ever loved it, even more than he loved betting the horses, all the way back to when he signed with the Dodgers in 1949. The best of it turned out to be here, sitting next to Torre, sharing everything from inside that famous head of his, seeing everything on a baseball field as clearly as he ever had.

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