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Rays

Baseball legend Don Zimmer dies at 83

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Published:   |   Updated: June 5, 2014 at 07:56 AM

ST. PETERSBURG — Don Zimmer, whose long and star-crossed career linked baseball’s golden age of the mid-1950s to the present, allowing him to tell tales of Jackie Robinson and Derek Jeter, died Wednesday.

He was 83.

Zimmer, who suffered a stroke in December 2008, underwent heart surgery April 16 to repair a leaky valve. He died at BayCare Alliant Hospital in Dunedin.

He is survived by his wife, Jean, universally known as Soot, son, Tom, daughter, Donna, and four grandchildren. A long-time resident of Treasure Island, Don and Soot had recently moved to Seminole.

The Rays paid tribute this season to Zimmer, their senior baseball advisor since 2004. Public relations director Rick Vaughn had a sign that read, “ZIM,’ hung from the front of the press box, and third base coach Tom Foley, with the blessing of Major League Baseball, began wearing Zimmer’s No. 66 jersey during games on May 23.

Zimmer spent so many years in baseball – 66 – that he was baseball history.

He played alongside Robinson and Pee Wee Reese in Brooklyn and was a member of the Dodgers’ lone World Series-winning team before the franchised moved west. He was the first man to play third base for the New York Mets.

He managed the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and San Diego Padres.

“Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man,” said Rays owner Stuart Sternberg. “Don dedicated his life to the game he loved, and his impact will be felt for generations to come. His contributions to this organization are immeasurable. I am proud that he wore a Rays uniform for the past 11 years.’’

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said Zimmer was “the kind of person you could only find in the National Pastime.’’

“As a player, Don experienced the joys of the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers and the struggles of the ‘62 Mets,’’ Selig said. “In his managerial and coaching career, this unique baseball man led the Cubs to a division crown and then, at his good friend Joe Torre’s loyal side, helped usher in a new era in the fabled history of the Yankees.’’

As manager of the 1978 Red Sox, Zimmer helped write one the worst chapter in the franchise’s history when they blew a 14-game lead to the New York Yankees and lost the division title in a one-game playoff.

In 1989, he became the toast of Chicago’s Northside when he guided the Cubs to the playoffs.

He was Joe Torre’s bench coach while the Yankees won four World Series titles from 1996 to 2000.

He passed along the things he learned from playing with Reese and Robinson from their Dodger days to the current-day Rays.

Zimmer knew the game of baseball treated him well. After all, he’d point out, he was only a .235 hitter.

“I got more out of the game than I deserved,” he often said.

But he knew the game inside and out and front to back.

Rays manager Joe Maddon relied on Zimmer for advice because he told you what he was thinking, not what you wanted to hear.

Maddon said he once called Zimmer before the start of spring training in 2013 to bounce an idea about how Maddon was thinking of a new role for one of his players.

It took Zimmer a few seconds to shoot it down.

“He hated it,” Maddon said.

Zimmer was asked about the conversation before Opening Day in 2013.

“Well, if he asks me something I’ll tell him what I think, that’s all, whether it’s right or wrong,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer was a standout in football, basketball and baseball at Western Hills High in Cincinnati. He was the first team all-state quarterback in 1948 and was recruited by Paul “Bear” Bryant to play football at the University of Kentucky.

But Zimmer signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization after high school and began his long journey in 1949 with the Cambridge Dodgers in the Class D Eastern Shore League.

His climb to the majors is memorable for two events:

♦  In 1951, Don married Soot, his high school sweetheart, before a game at home plate at Dunn Stadium in Elmira, N.Y.

♦  He was hit in the temple on July 7, 1953, by a pitch from Jim Kirk that left him unconscious for 13 days. When he finally awoke, he thought he was unconscious for only one day.

Doctors drilled four holes in Zimmer’s head to relieve the pressure from the swelling of his brain. He did not have a metal plate inserted in his head, as the legend goes. Instead, doctors inserted screws in the holes.

The injury left him with blurred vision. Doctors told him he was lucky to be alive and would never play again play baseball.

Two years later, Zimmer was the starting second baseman in Game 7 of the World Series.

Though he never dazzled with the bat, Zimmer forged a 12-year major league career because of his defense. A utility infielder, he played second, shortstop and third base and even caught during his final season when he played for Washington.

“What you lack in talent can be made up with desire, hustle and giving 110 percent all the time,” he once said.

Zimmer played for the Dodgers, Cubs, Mets, Reds and Senators. He finished his career in 1966, playing for Toei Flyers in Japan.

He coached for the Expos, Padres, Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Giants and Rockies.

Voted the National League manager of the year in 1989 after taking the Cubs to the playoffs, Zimmer had a better reputation as a coach than manager.

He joked about his worth to the Yankees while serving as Torre’s bench coach on four World Series-winning teams:

“If Joe Torre orders a hit-and-run and it works, I pat him on the back and say, ‘Smart move.’ If it doesn’t work, I go down and hang around the water cooler.”

Even as a bench coach in the shadows of Torre, Zimmer managed to find the spotlight.

During the 1999 postseason, Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch fouled a ball into the Yankees dugout that grazed Zimmer’s ear. A package was waiting for Zimmer in the Yankees clubhouse when he arrived the next day. It was an army helmet with the Yankees’ famous ‘NY’ logo on the front – a gift from several of Zimmer’s buddies working as baseball scouts.

When Knoblauch came to bat that game, Zimmer donned the helmet.

The most famous incident during Zimmer’s New York years occurred during the 2003 American League Championship Series when Zimmer, 72 at the time, charged Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez during a bench-clearing incident at Fenway Park. Martinez grabbed Zimmer by the head and flung him to the ground.

Zimmer held a press conference the next day to apologize for his actions.

The incident was just another chapter in Zimmer’s no-love-lost relationship with Red Sox fans.

Zimmer managed the Red Sox in 1978 – a year that began with so much promise as the team appeared to be running away with the AL East title and ended in with the agony of a 5-4 loss to the Yankees in a one-game playoff at Fenway Park. The game is known for one moment: Bucky Dent’s three-run homer that erased a 2-0 Red Sox lead.

Years later, the paths of Bucky Dent and Don Zimmer would cross again.

“I’ve been fired (as manager) by Texas, and I take a coaching job with the Yankees,” Zimmer once said. “Dent has been traded by the Yankees to Texas. I rent his house in Wyckoff, New Jersey. I go in there and on every wall, there’s a picture of him with that swing for that home run. Every wall. I call him up and I tell him I turned every one of them around, facing the wall.”

Red Sox fans still blame Zimmer for the collapse of 1978, though Zimmer would like fans to remember the Red Sox actually caught the Yankees on the last day of the season to force the one-game playoff.

The Red Sox, after blowing that 14-game lead, were actually 3 games behind the first-place Yankees on Sept. 16. It was the Red Sox that forced the playoff game by finishing the regular season with an eight-game winning streak that capped a 12-2 run.

Zimmer said over the years every Red Sox fan he’d met would say the same thing: “I never booed you.”

“If all of them were right, then I never would have been booed in Boston,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer said he never drew a paycheck outside of baseball. When asked how he supported his family in the offseason back when players’ salaries were a fraction of what they are today, Zimmer answered with two words: “Winter ball.”

He spent winters in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico honing his craft.

He played winter ball after his rookie season in 1954, teaming with future hall of famers Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente. Zimmer and was named the MVP of the Caribbean World Series that winter.

His first full year in the big leagues was 1955, and it ended with the Dodgers winning their only World Series title while in Brooklyn.

Zimmer was the starting second baseman in Game 7 but was pinch-hit for in the top of the sixth inning with the Dodgers leading 2-0.

Jim Gilliam, who started in left field, moved to second base in the bottom of the inning and Sandy Amoros entered the game as the left fielder.

It would quickly prove to a pivotal move in the game. With Gil McDougald on first base in the bottom of the sixth, Yogi Berra sent a drive into the left field corner that Amoros caught at the wall after a long run. That Amoros was left-handed help, because it enabled him to extend his right hand to catch the ball.

Amoros fired the ball to shortstop Reese, who threw to first baseman Gil Hodges to double McDougald off first base.

“I was very important in that seventh game,” Zimmer said on many occasions. “You don’t win many games by being taken out of the game.”

Zimmer was the last member of the 1955 Dodgers to have a job a job in baseball.

He had a role on another famous New York team – the 1962 Mets.

While donning the Mets uniform for publicity photos before the season, Zimmer tossed his son, Tom, on his shoulders. The photo got great play in the New York papers.

Zimmer was the starting third baseman for the Mets but didn’t stay with the team long. He was traded to his hometown Cincinnati Reds after 14 games. There, he was the last member of the Reds to wear No. 14 before Pete Rose.

“He’s played with or against the greatest players of all-time,” said Rays pitcher Brandon Gomes, currently with Triple-A Durham. “You don’t see that anymore. Nobody stays in the game that long anymore.”

Zimmer’s life in baseball fill more than 60 scrapbooks that Soot dutifully kept over the years. There are a lot of memories tucked between those pages.

Zimmer often said his best memory was clinching the 1989 NL East title in Montreal while managing a Cubs team picked to finished last that season.

The Cubs had four rookies in the lineup. They were 5-22 in spring training.

On the flight home from spring training, Zimmer told Cubs general manager and childhood buddy Jim Frey the team would be lucky to finish .500. He told Frey they would dance down Chicago’s famous Michigan Avenue if they won 81 games.

The Cubs won eight of their first 10 games and finished the regular season with 93 wins.

Zimmer’s son, Tom, threw out the first pitch before the Rays 2013 season opener. It would be Zimmer’s last Opening Day in a baseball uniform.

Zimmer’s family stood on the mound as Tom threw the ball to Longoria. The Rays players, coaches and staff gathered behind home plate in a touching tribute to Zimmer.

A few hours before the game Zimmer leaned against the dugout railing and reflected for a moment on what the game of baseball meant to him.

“It’s been my life, and I’ve been so lucky,” Zimmer said. “You know, Lou Gehrig says, ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.’ Well, if he’s the luckiest man in the world, I’m the second luckiest.”

rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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