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Friday, Sep 19, 2014
Martin Fennelly Columns

Zimmer’s passing leaves baseball, all of us poorer

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Published:   |   Updated: June 5, 2014 at 05:25 AM

— I got the news at a baseball game.

And it seemed like the place to be.

He went with baseball like peanuts and Cracker Jack.

Don Zimmer, a face of the game if there ever was one, passed away early Wednesday evening.

Suddenly, all these Rays losses in a row didn’t matter as much.

The Rays, and the game, lost a dear friend.

Tampa Bay lost a local treasure.

He was just Zim.

His 83 years had seams on them. His birth sign was Hit Away.

He spent 66 years in the game he loved. He spent most of it with his wife, Soot, forever his high school sweetheart. Donald William Zimmer and Jean Carol Bauerle were married in 1951 in a ballpark in Elmira, N.Y. At home plate.

Zim touched them all Wednesday.

And he touched most anyone who ever met him.

Zim was beloved. He was a baseball lifer, a joy.

Zim and Soot lived in Treasure Island for nearly half a century before moving to Seminole, but Zim was never an island. That cherub face couldn’t stay away from baseball. Ballplayer, coach, manager, ambassador and, at the end, still a Rays senior baseball adviser, 11 years after joining the club, back when Lou Piniella brought him aboard. The Rays were always better for it.

Zim was friends with Jackie Robinson and he was friends with Derek Jeter. Zim spanned baseball generations.

Zimmer once met Babe Ruth after his American Legion team won a national title. Ruth gave each player an autographed baseball. Zim prized that keepsake. Wouldn’t you know, he turned into a keepsake himself, a beloved baseball heirloom.

Zim played with the Bums in Brooklyn when they finally won their title in 1955. Zim made the first error for the ’62 Mets. Zim played for the Cubs, Senators and Reds, too. Zim hit .235 lifetime. Zim finished up his playing days in Japan — Zim! Japan! Zim managed the Red Sox in the great race against the Yankees in ’78.

Zim managed the Padres, Cubs and Rangers, too. Zim coached for the Expos, Padres, Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Giants and Rockies.

One day 61 years ago, Zim’s skull was nearly caved in by a pitched baseball. He was unconscious nearly two weeks. Doctors drilled holes to relieve the pressure inside Zim’s head. Zim nearly died for the game.

But some lives are meant to be lived.

Popeye. Gerbil. Zip. Those were some of Zim’s nicknames across the years, and they all fit. Zim had his own Rays bobblehead. A few years ago, the Rays held a promotional giveaway: the Zim Bear. It looked very nearly scary. But it grew on you, just like Zim did. The Rays had to have a second Zim Bear Night because of demand.

There was no better day at any baseball park than when you were sitting next to Zim in a dugout, and he was talking about Don Larsen’s perfect game, or Willie Mays’ arm or Jackie Robinson’s courage. Zim had it all in that baseball mind, perched in that baseball soul.

“My life has been so blessed,” Zim said last year. He was struggling at the time, fighting tears while talking about not getting to Tropicana Field as much as he wanted. Diabetes. Dialysis. And there was a heart surgery a couple of months ago, not long after Opening Day, when Zim was introduced at the Trop and came riding in on a golf cart, and all the Rays starters came by and hugged him as they were introduced. And everyone seemed to know, though it was all unspoken, that this was Zim’s final Opening Day.

Don Zimmer is gone.

Want to know a great way to remember him?

Go to a ballgame.

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