ST. PETERSBURG — He didn't want a funeral. He didn't want speeches or tears. He wanted a celebration.
And he wanted it at a ballpark.
“He didn't have a church,” said his son, Tom. “Church was here.”
Don Zimmer, Zim, was remembered Saturday at Tropicana Field by friends and fans, and by Rays and Seattle Mariners ballplayers who stood on the foul lines in replicas of Zimmer's first jersey in the majors, No. 23, Brooklyn Dodgers, all those years ago.
For the ceremonial first pitch, Tom Zimmer caught a fastball for a strike from Don Zimmer's granddaughter, Whitney Goldstein, who played college softball for UMass and is now a successful college coach. Saturday, she used a ball glove, she was told, that her grandfather once used.
“He would have liked that,” Whitney said.
Saturday was perfect. Simple. Dignified. Moving. Don Zimmer married his beloved Soot in a baseball park. We said goodbye in one.
“Baseball was his tabernacle,” said Zim's friend, Joe Torre.
Torre, headed for the Hall of Fame, hired Zimmer as Yankees bench coach in 1996. He attended Saturday's ceremony, as did Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, Zimmer's first roommate in professional baseball. And there were dear Zimmer friends and managing greats Lou Piniella, who brought Zim to work in Tampa Bay, and Jim Leyland.
Also on hand were Tino Martinez and others who played and learned under Zim.
Sue Draughn was at the Trop, too. She lives in Clearwater and has been a season ticket-holder since the club's inaugural season. On a necklace around her neck, Sue wore a Zim Bear, the strange, furry pride and joy of the Rays' giveaway arsenal. Sue also made a poster for Zim, a wonderful photo collage of photos and baseball cards … Zim with the Dodgers … Zim with the Red Sox … Zim with Ted Williams, with Torre and Derek Jeter, Zim with Evan Longoria, with Wil Myers.
“Zim wasn't just a baseball man. He was an everyday person,” Sue said. “We won a 'Rays Bingo' promotion a few years ago and got to meet Zim in a suite. ... He was supposed to stay for 10 minutes. But he got started telling stories. He sat there for an hour. He ate hot dogs with us. Zim made you feel like he came to see you.”
Zim was comfortable with the greats and the ticket-holders alike. It was all there Saturday, the reach of Zim.
There was a video tribute. Ben Zobrist offered a prayer. There was a moment of silence. There was the strength and grace of Soot. A bagpiper played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” There was the ZIM patch Rays personnel will wear on their sleeves the rest of the season. Rays manager Joe Maddon presented one to Soot, then added a gentle kiss.
“It's a unique patch because it isn't all black,” Whitney said. “He didn't want doom and gloom. He wanted a celebration of his life. He didn't want a funeral where everybody comes and looks at him.”
He wanted smiles and stories.
Joe Torre wore a suit at Saturday's ceremony, but he undid his tie when on-field emcee and Rays broadcaster Dewayne Staats announced the no-tie rule. Zim didn't do ties.
“I gave Zim a list of rules when I got to the Yankees in '96 so he could look them over,” Torre said. “He said, 'Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh … OK, I don't like this one.' I said, 'Which one?' It was the one about wearing ties on the road. He said he didn't think we should do that. So I said OK. Come to find out Zim didn't like it because he couldn't tie a tie. He was fine at home because Soot could tie it for him. But on the road, that wasn't a good rule for him.”
Tom Zimmer, a longtime San Francisco Giants scout, spoke of the outpouring after his dad passed last Wednesday.
“I was in a game at Pensacola, it was in the second inning when I got the call,” Tom said. “I'd been waiting for the call for eight weeks. I finished the game. Like I'm supposed to. Drove all the way through the night coming back. I had texts for eight hours. I let my wife drive almost the whole way. I had texts all night ... people I didn't even know sometimes … not just family … general managers of clubs, presidents, owners of clubs. It's unbelievable.
“He talked to movie stars. He talked to rock stars. He didn't even know who they were. Movie stars would seek him out. He would call me and say 'I was sitting here with some nice guy with silver hair, some guy named Newman …” Paul Newman! Kevin Costner became a friend. He didn't even know who he was. Betty White was loving all over him in Chicago. He doesn't know who Betty White is. No clue. One day, Danny DeVito was in the dugout, wanting to meet. Don, would you come down and take a picture with this guy? My dad looks down and thought it was an old jockey. He knows jockeys all over the world.”
Sue Draughn owns 12 Zim Bears.
“They're so ugly they're cute,” she said.
She'll never forget that night in that Trop suite, eating hot dogs with a beautiful, beautiful man, Donald William Zimmer.
“I like to think the Rays needed a baseball angel. I firmly believe Zim's up there, saying 'Get it the hell together and let's win.' ”