ST. PETERSBURG - Don Zimmer leaned in close from his seat in the home dugout at Tropicana Field during the quiet moments before a Devil Rays game last week.
Those famous eyes squinted out past those famous cherubic cheeks toward a baseball diamond occupied only by a grounds crew member hosing the infield dirt around second base.
Zim gripped the handle of a fungo bat in his right hand and tapped the barrel once between his shoes on the dugout floor.’Nobody knew this,’ he said, his voice just above a whisper. ‘When this franchise started, in the worst way, I wanted to put my name in the hat to manage here. I’m telling you, I told my wife Soot so many times. She said, ‘Well, why wouldn’t you call somebody and tell somebody?’ I said, no. I don’t want to do that. I said, ‘If anybody wanted me to manage in my hometown - I’ve only lived here 40 years at the time or 50 years - somebody would recognize that.’’
And then, louder, in the voice of authority that made him one of baseball’s most prominent leaders of men throughout the 1970s and ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Zimmer proclaimed: ‘I would’ve been thrilled to manage the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays.’
Pride wouldn’t let him call about the job that would have put him in the manager’s office at the Trop, a 15-minute drive from his Treasure Island home.
If they wanted him bad enough, he figured, they’d call him.’I’ve never had to ask for a job, and I’ve had a lot of them,’ Zimmer said. ‘I’ve been released, traded, sold. I’ve never had to ask for a job.’History had other plans for Zimmer, who stayed in New York as Joe Torre’s right-hand man through the 2003 season. But then, history and Zimmer’s path always have seemed to intersect during his six decades in baseball.
It is in that spirit - take Zim or leave him, but by golly, it will be on his terms - that the Rays will celebrate the life and times of their one-time wannabe manager and current senior baseball adviser Saturday at the Trop. On Turn Back the Clock Day, the National League team from Los Angeles will wear the road jerseys of the team that brought Zimmer his first World Series ring, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.
That victorious autumn in New York 52 years ago could serve as the prologue in Zim’s long story. But so could any number of historical moments he witnessed and experienced first-hand.
He Has Seen It All
The list reads like Forrest Gump’s itinerary, if Forrest Gump had signed a minor-league contract with Branch Rickey’s Dodgers in 1949:Brooklyn’s at-long-last World Series victory against the Yankees in 1955. Don Larsen’s perfect game for the Yankees in Game 5 of the ‘56 Series.
Anything Jackie Robinson did on the field or off. The grace and power of Duke Snider; the infectious willpower of Pee Wee Reese. The spectacle of Casey Stengel’s 1962 Mets.
The heartbreak - in New England, anyway - of Bucky Dent’s home run sailing over the Green Monster to give the Yankees the 1978 American League East title by a game on Zim’s Red Sox. Not one, but two victorious seasons on Chicago’s North Side, where Zim was third-base coach for the ‘84 NL East champs and became Manager of the Year with the ‘89 Cubs.
The four World Series titles in the Bronx from 1996-2000. The infamous brawl against Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox in the 2003 postseason.
Zimmer’s list of personal baseball thrills is relatively short, starting with his major-league debut for the Dodgers on July 2, 1954, at old Shibe Park in Philadelphia. He tripled off Curt Simmons that day, but …’All the Philadelphia bullpen pitchers said my ball was a home run,’ Zimmer said. ‘It actually hit the overhang. It was a home run. I would say that’s one of the thrills that I’ve had.’The other moment that stands out, a point of personal pride, is the unlikely run of success by those underdog Cubs in ‘89. He was a near-unanimous selection for NL Manager of the Year that season.
His managerial career would end two years later, but he still gets a kick out of having proved the world wrong in 1989.’When we went to spring training, every sportswriter picked us last,’ Zimmer said. ‘And if I was a writer, I would’ve picked us last, too.’
He Has Lived History, Too
Or, in telling the Story of Zim, would you start with the personal, the moments that were uniquely his?That’s where the story is now, out of the realm of achievement and into the days of appreciation. Zimmer, the quintessential baseball man, has evolved pleasantly over the past three-plus years with the Devil Rays into Zim the Baseball Icon.
He has been more than a mere witness to history; he has lived it, too.
Twice he was beaned in the head, once losing consciousness for nearly two weeks. The legend of the metal plate in his head isn’t true, but he was still hard-headed enough to come back for more.’
Hal Jeffcoat threw a pitch and hit him right in the cheekbone,’ former Brooklyn teammate Carl Erskine said. ‘He didn’t see it at all. We thought Zimmer was finished. He’s a bulldog. He went through the process of regaining his - well, he had a fractured face, actually. But he came back and he was never plate shy. And that was amazing to me.’He married his wife, Soot, at home plate in 1951, a ceremony held at the ballpark when Zim was a minor-leaguer in Elmira, N.Y. They settled in Treasure Island in 1956 and stayed in the same house until moving to a condominium in Seminole last year.
The horses? There’s a story there, too. On those days when his duties with the Rays don’t call, Zim can be found at Tampa Bay Downs, pursuing his other great sporting passion. He’s a regular at historic Saratoga and California’s scenic Del Mar.’I’m a horse player,’ he said. ‘I bet dogs for 40 years, but I had to give the dogs up because it’s at night. I’m a horse player. I love to go to races.’Erskine tells of the time when roommate Duke Snider brought his wife on a Dodgers road trip and Zimmer moved in with Erskine for the duration of the trip.’So, Zimmer comes to me and he says, ‘Hey, Erskine. I’m going to room with you, and I want you to know I’m a good boy. I come in early. I don’t have no problems. In fact, I get up early every morning and I read the Bible. The first thing I do every morning is read the Bible,’’ Erskine said. ‘I said, ‘Shoot, that’s good, Zim.’
’Six o’clock the next morning, there’s a knock on the door and it’s the bellboy. And Zimmer jumps out of bed and he runs to the door and he comes back with, yes, the paper. The Racing Form. He said, ‘This is my bible.’’
History kept Zim in New York for eight years, a fixture in the dugout as Torre’s beloved bench coach. Not until things went sour with the Yankees - specifically, with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner - did the Rays finally call after the 2003 season.
Nearly four years have passed. A seventh decade in baseball beckons.’Can you imagine that?’ he said. ‘Seems like I was with the Yankees yesterday.’There is always that, of course. If the Devil Rays Years are the epilogue, his Yankees Years (1996-2003) are the chapter that cemented his legacy as a baseball celebrity and brought him full circle from one of Dem Bums to a Yankee Stadium mainstay.
The acrimonious split with Steinbrenner in ‘03 made headlines, but Zimmer has made his own personal peace with that, just as he has with everything else in his life.’It’s just like people say to me, do you regret … I mean, I had a job in New York that was just unbelievable,’ Zimmer said. ‘Guy said to me, ‘Do you regret leaving the Yankees?’ I said, ‘I didn’t do this on the spur of the moment.’ I’ve always lived my own life, and I’m going to live it the way I want to live it.’And when I left New York, I knew that I was going to leave and I would never be back. And that’s the way it is. You can say, ‘Well, he’s a stubborn little German,’ or whatever. But I lived my own life, and that’s the way I’ve been all my life.’It’s because of those years in New York that Zimmer is now America’s Bench Coach, even if his official title with the Devil Rays is senior baseball adviser.
He’s still in uniform at age 76, and for that, he’s grateful, even though it irks him terribly that a torn biceps muscle no longer allows him to hit fungoes. No, he says, he never knows from year to year whether he’ll be back next season because ‘it takes two to tango.’The number on his jersey - 59 - will change to 60 if the Rays organization does ask Zim back to the dance in 2008. It’s a stitched-on scoreboard, of sorts, measuring Zim’s years in the game.
Measuring, he says, his own lifelong streak of good fortune.’They have a thing out there in Yankee Stadium that usually they play once a day or twice a day,’ Zimmer said. ‘You might have seen it, about Lou Gehrig giving his speech, being a lucky man. Well, I’ll never be up on that JumboTron, but I’m as lucky as he’s ever been. To be in this game as long as I have and do what I’ve done. Everything that I own is from baseball. That’s what it’s done for me.’