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Ashway: Don Zimmer had a baseball life well-lived

POSTED: June 10, 2014 2:35 p.m.
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Don Zimmer spent 66 years in baseball as a player, coach and manager.

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Don Zimmer’s death at age 83 last week ended his 66-year relationship with professional baseball. As Commissioner Bud Selig noted, "Don was the kind of person you could only find in the National Pastime."

For once, Selig nailed it. Can you imagine Zimmer sitting anywhere but a baseball dugout? Can you picture him without a baseball cap perched atop his incredibly bulbous head? If you search for "baseball lifer" and anyone else’s image pops up, you dare not trust your search engine.

Here’s a guy who signed his first baseball contract in 1949. On Aug. 16, 1951, he married his high school sweetheart at home plate in his minor league ballpark. Zimmer never ended either relationship.

He played in the majors for 12 years, spent 13 as a manager and 26 as a coach. He spent his final year, and most lucrative as a player, in Japan in 1966. But he found his best job in 2004, when he became the Rays’s resident Baseball Guru.

Zimmer played the role of part-time coach, team pitchman and advisor, and told Grayson Kamm of WTSP, "I’ve been looking for this job all my life! They’ve made it pretty nice for me."

Zim and his wife, known to all as Soot, had made their home in St. Petersburg since the early 1950s. Working for his hometown team was a welcome break from his nomadic baseball life.

In 1963, Zim was with the Dodgers. Soot had loaded their two kids into their non-air-conditioned car for the drive across country. "I think it took them five days," Zim told Kamm. "I get off the airplane, and [a Dodger official] said, ‘You were just sold to the Washington Senators.’"

Zim immediately called Soot. "I’ve already got one bag packed!" she said. The news had already been on the radio. "And that’s the way our life has been."

Zim suffered a terrible beaning in 1953, lingered in semi-consciousness for two weeks and then beat the odds by resuming his career. As a result, baseball made the wearing of batting helmets mandatory for all players.

He reached the majors with the Boys of Summer Dodgers in 1954. One year later, he was the starting second baseman in Game Seven of the World Series. Zim played a key role as Brooklyn won its only world championship.

In the sixth inning, with the Dodgers leading the Yankees, 2-0, manager Walter Alston pinch-hit for Zim with George Shuba. In the bottom of the sixth, Jim Gilliam moved from leftfield to second base, and Sandy Amoros took over in left.

Billy Martin led off with a walk, and Gil McDougald beat out a bunt. That brought up Yogi Berra, a notorious pull hitter who, naturally, sliced one down the leftfield line. Amoros made one of the best catches in Series history, and the Dodgers doubled McDougald off first, preserving their lead.

Zim always took credit for the play. "When Yogi hit that ball down the leftfield line, with Amoros’ speed and being a left-handed thrower, a right-handed thrower probably couldn’t have caught the ball. I always kid around with people. I say, ‘I was very important in that seventh game.’ You don’t win many games by being taken out of the game!"

Zim also played for Los Angeles’ first world champions in 1959 and would always remain a Dodger at heart. In 1960, he moved on to Chicago for two years, making his only all-star game as a Cub in 1961.

In 1962, he became the very first third baseman in the history of the New York Mets. He set the standard for the eight others who would follow him that season, and the 151 who would follow in the years to come, by going hitless in his first 34 at bats.

That earned him a trade to Cincinnati, before he went back to the Dodgers in 1963 and then to the Senators, a team he often described as "uglier than me." In 12 years, he hit .235 with 91 homers, and 352 RBIs.

Zim coached for the Expos, Padres, Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Giants and Rockies. He managed the Padres (1972-73), Red Sox (1976-80), Rangers (1981-82) and Cubs (1988-91).

It was Zim who yelled, "No! No! No!" to Denny Doyle in Game Six of the 1975 World Series. It was the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, none out. Doyle thought he heard, "Go! Go! Go!" and got thrown out easily at the plate by George Foster, setting up Carlton Fisk’s memorable home run three innings later.

And it was Zim who managed the Sox in 1978, when they famously blew a 14 game lead over the Yankees. Few remember that Zim’s club actually won its final eight games, and 12 of its final 14, to forge the memorable playoff game.

He won his only division title as manager in 1989, taking a collection of Cubs that had a 9-23 record in spring training and turning them into The Boys of Zimmer. He’d pull triple steals, squeeze plays with the bases loaded and the pitcher at bat, anything he could think of. He had a blast, and so did his players. "This game has to be fun if you’re going to be any good at all," Zim often said.

On Opening Day 2014, the loudest ovation at Tropicana Field was reserved for Zim. It was one final outpouring of affection that confirmed Zim’s evaluation of his life in baseball: "I’m the luckiest guy in the world."

 

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