By In Baseball, RIP

Don Zimmer

Some years ago, on a yellow and muggy afternoon in Baltimore, I considered Don Zimmer. Batting practice rushed around us, that peculiar bit of baseball chaos — ground balls skittering along the grass, throws floating across the infield, a coach behind the L-shaped fence pitching baseballs to men in a cage, outfielders lazily chasing after fly balls and then returning to their conversations. It was a scene I had seen hundreds of times. But it was a scene Don Zimmer had seen ten thousand times. He sat on the top row of the bench across the dugout from me, and he chewed whatever he was chewing. He stared out into the sun and regarded batting practice like it was the first time he’d seen either.

What is it about men like Zim … men who love baseball so much that you might expect to find in them, like inside the great horse Secretariat, hearts almost twice the average size? You see them around all around the game. They write lineup cards in Augusta and take tickets in Springfield and mow the outfield grass in Toledo. They drive the Florida backroads looking for young talent and they sit in cramped Iowa City press boxes and they keep immaculate scorebooks for American Legion ball in Sacramento.

What is it? Don Zimmer loved the game from the start — madly and deeply. Maybe it was a Cincinnati thing. Before he even made the big leagues, Zim inspired a Cincinnati kid named Pete Rose. He was married at home plate under a canopy of baseball bats.

Baseball did not always love Zim back. Before his Major League baseball career even started, he was almost killed by a fastball that cracked his skull; he woke up after two weeks of touch and go and wondered who won the game. He loved the game even more and made the Major Leagues the next year.

He was a marginal Major Leaguer and an unusual one — he was only 5-foot-9 and had the look of the scrappy and unconvincing middle infielder, but his outstanding tool was power. He played 12 years for five teams and thumped 91 home runs in the scattered plate appearances he was given. He got 500 plate appearances only once in his 12-year career, and he made the All-Star Team that year. He played two innings in the 1961 All-Star Game — made an error, grounded out to short.

Zimmer played on the 1955 Dodgers that won the World Series, and he played on the 1962 Mets that lost 120 games. He began the 1963 season on Sandy Koufax’s Dodgers, one of the best teams of the sixties. He ended the 1963 season with the Washington Senators, one of the worst.

Men like Don Zimmer do not retire from baseball — the find their level. When he could no longer play at the big league level, he went to play in Knoxville and Buffalo. When he could not play at that level either, he took on jobs managing minor league teams. The 1972 San Diego Padres hired him to be their manager. The 1973 Padres fired him after his team lost 102 games.

His love of baseball never diminished. He managed in Boston and Texas and Chicago. He coached in Denver, a city that did not get Major League Baseball until he was on his 60s. He coached for Joe Torre in New York, at Yankee Stadium, and his teams won — he looked at home. He coached in Tampa Bay, under the gloomy light of a depressing dome, and for a few years his teams lost — he looked at home.

He was fired almost as often as he was hired. You could argue that his two most famous moments on the field were both mistakes. In the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, a fly ball soared over him.

“No! No! No!” he shouted to Denny Doyle, the man on third base.

“Go! Go! Go!” Denny Doyle heard, and he tagged up and went. He was thrown out at the plate, pushing the game into extra innings, pushing the drama to Carlton Fisk who hit a long fly ball toward the Green Monster that he waved fair.

The other time was when Zimmer was coaching the Yankees, and he lost his mind and charged Pedro Martinez, who promptly body slammed him because he didn’t know what else to do.

Don Zimmer’s love for baseball — like Alvy Singer’s universe — never stopped expanding. What is it about baseball that inspires men like Zim to spend lifetimes inside it? I stared at him from across the clubhouse, and if I had any talent as an artist I might have sketched his memorable face, the one that inspired people to call him Popeye. But if I had done that, it would have come out looking like a walrus, because they all come out looking like walruses.

Instead, I wrote down a series of thoughts. I wouldn’t call it a poem, not exactly. But I typed it into a computer file some years ago.

The wins are never enough.
The losses are never too much.
Hope lingers until the final out and reappears with tomorrow’s pitcher.
The locker room is a clubhouse.
The stadiums are called parks.
If you swing the bat, you’re dangerous.

You spend afternoons standing in sunshine.
You spend nights in the bar.
You fight out of slumps.
You try to stay hot.
The baseball looks like a beach ball.
The baseball looks like a pea.

Every day is a dirty joke.
Every day is a rain shower of swear words.
Every day is an autograph and a memory,
a kid wearing a glove and a red-faced drunk shouting at the ump,
a chance to win and a chance to lose.
And you can spit when you feel like it.

Real life leaves early to beat traffic.
Real life has to work in the morning.
This is the unreal life.
Like a winning streak.
You ride as long as you can hold on.

That’s where it ended. I don’t think the thought is complete, but I never did complete it. When Don Zimmer died this week at age 83, he was almost universally loved. Few are. He was a nice man, a funny man, a character. There were some (Bill Lee comes to mind) who could not stand him, but even then, you could love Zim without even liking him. See, I think what made people love Zim was that thing that made him so thoroughly love baseball in the first place. He would rather be at the ballpark.

13 Responses to Don Zimmer

  1. tombando says:

    Zim never better then he managed the ’89 Cubs…Bill Lee had some legit gripes, but never took responsibility for his own part of ’78. Yeah throw Perez that eephus ball again Bill. Gee. ’75 is partly your fault too Stoner.

    • Herb Smith says:

      This could go both ways; without a doubt, the worst thing Zimmer ever did in his looooong career was “try to teach that loudmouth Bill Lee a lesson” by not pitching him late in the 1978 season. Lee was an excellent pitcher, with a 120 ERA+ that year.

      And those Red Sox lost by exactly one game. Bucky Dent, the Piniella miracle sun-ball, Reggie’s homer…all those Yankee legendary moments from the 1978 playoff games would not have even existed had Zim simply managed like a professional during the pennant race.

      And I LIKED Zimmer.

      • Stephen says:

        To be fair…Lee started the Red Sox game on July 15 and beat Minnesota (despite giving up eleven hits and four runs). That made him 10-3 on the year.

        He then proceeded to lose every one of his next seven starts. He had a couple of pretty decent games in that stretch, so it wasn’t like he was getting bombed every time out; but he wasn’t exactly a hard-luck loser either. He struck out a total of nine batters (and gave up seven homers) in those seven games.

        In a time when basically everybody evaluated a pitcher in large part on his W-L record, and in a time when the “hot hand” was perhaps more widely accepted than it is today, that would have been a concerning trend to any manager, not just Zimmer. In that light, it’s not all that surprising that he pulled Lee from the rotation after that seventh consecutive loss.

        Now I agree that using Lee just four times in relief down the stretch (and not at all after September 10) didn’t make much sense. But by 1978 standards, at least, Lee wasn’t pitching like a guy who should absolutely-no-doubt-about-it have stayed in the rotation.

  2. David Nix says:

    “his memorable face, the one that inspired people to call him Popeye”

    Don Zimmer was in the first pack of baseball cards I ever bought, in 1962. I have laughed over the past few days at obits that said the nickname came from his muscular arms. No one who ever saw the Topps ’62 Zimmer card could buy that.

  3. FranT says:

    That might not be a poem, Joe, but it’s poetry. A fitting Elegy for Zim.

  4. D Fisher says:

    Well now, Pedro’s “body slam” was more like a QB sidestepping an off balance rusher. But Tim McCarver from the broadcast booth thought it was the crime of the century.

    • The crime of the century was McCarver being allowed to drone on endlessly in the booth for 20+ years about stuff NOBODY cared about. A close second was his book, which bored even the nerdiest of baseball fans.

  5. MikeN says:

    Pedro body-slam? It was mocked on SNL with Halle Berry saying, just redirect him and let his momentum carry him to the ground.

    Stopped the whole brawl because people thought Zimmer had died.

  6. Kevin says:

    Zimmer was those luckiest of individuals who got to do the thing he loved every day….and even got paid for it. Not too many people can say that at the end of the day.

  7. David says:

    I always liked Zimmer just because he took the blame for Pedro’s “body slam”. Like he said, don’t blame Pedro for defending himself…blame the old man for charging at him. Classy guy, Zimmer…glad he had a long life doing what he loved.

  8. Byron says:

    “who promptly body slammed him because he didn’t know what else to do.”

    Seriously? I know that the guy just died, but come on, Joe. You know better than that.

    Martinez grabbed him by the ears and sidestepped him. Zimmer fell on his face because he was 73-years-old and shouldn’t have done what he did. And while Zimmer apologized profusely, Martinez did too.

    It was an unfortunate incident for all involved.

  9. aaron says:

    Got to meet Zimmer while doing some work on his house in St. Petersburg many years ago. What a great guy. Down to earth, funny. From that meeting, so easy to see why he was beloved. A special human being. Have not been many like him, and never will be. RIP.

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