Thursday, June 5, 2014

Don Zimmer .... My Story

Don Zimmer died yesterday at age 83.

For baseball fans and especially for us oldsters who grew up playing the game and admiring the Major Leaguers, we remember him mostly as a feisty and fiery old time fighter on the field, both as a player and later as a manager.

Zimmer began his Major League career as an infielder for the then Brooklyn Dodgers and went on to become a successful manager and base coach in the later years. He was a big part of the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs stories as well.

Don Zimmer, Who Spent 60 Eventful Years in Baseball, Dies at 83 tells the story of his life and death:

Don Zimmer, left, and Joe Torre in 2000.

"Don Zimmer, the stubby, Popeye-muscled baseball lifer with the unforgettable jowls whose passion for the game endured through more than 60 years as a player, manager, coach and adviser, died on Wednesday in Dunedin, Fla. He was 83. . . .

Zimmer was married on a baseball diamond in 1951, and it seemed he never left the field.

He played the infield for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ only World Series championship team, he was an original member of the Mets and he was Yankee Manager Joe Torre’s confidant as his bench coach on four World Series championship teams. He filled in as the Yankees’ manager for 36 games in 1999 when Torre was being treated for prostate cancer. . . . He was the National League’s manager of the year in 1989 when he led the Chicago Cubs to a surprising division championship.

He played in the majors for 12 seasons, mostly as an infielder, and he managed for 13 seasons. He was an All-Star only once, and he never managed a pennant winner, but his intensity remained undimmed. While a Yankees coach in October 2003, at 72, he charged Boston’s star pitcher Pedro Martinez during a playoff melee. Zimmer swung and missed, and then was thrown to the Fenway Park turf by Martinez. He soon apologized for sullying the game he loved. . . .

Zimmer’s bulging arm muscles on his 5-foot-9-inch frame (he was about 170 pounds in his playing years) brought him the enduring nickname Popeye when he played for the Dodger teams known as the Boys of Summer. His puffy face seemed like something out of a baseball trading card from the days when dugouts were awash in the juice from chewing tobacco. . . .

Zimmer made his major league debut in 1954, filling in briefly for Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ future Hall of Fame shortstop and Zimmer’s boyhood idol. . . .

Zimmer remained with the Dodgers through their 1959 World Series championship season in Los Angeles, played two seasons for the Cubs, making his lone All-Star appearance in 1961, and then joined the expansion Mets as their third baseman in 1962. . . . He later played for the Dodgers once more and the Washington Senators, and then retired after the 1965 season with a .235 career batting average and 91 homers.

Zimmer managed the San Diego Padres (1972-73), the Red Sox (1976-80), the Texas Rangers (1981-82) and the Cubs (1988-91), and then filled in for the recuperating Torre early in 1999.

He was Torre’s bench coach from 1996 to 2003, and then quit, maintaining he had been treated abusively by the Yankees’ owner, George Steinbrenner."

Summing Up

Now here's my Don Zimmer story.

One of my fondest memories of time spent with my Dad (who died in 1974), and there are many, relates to baseball and its teachings about the game of life.

One such experience that particularly stands out occurred in 1967 on a summer evening in Denver.

At the time, I was a newly married law student, and my parents came to visit us from their home in Illinois.

Dad and I enjoyed baseball immensely, and we also didn't mind drinking a few beers together as well.

So when presented with an opportunity for a cheap "boys" night out at the ball park, we went to watch a double header between Denver and San Diego, who were then two AAA farm teams competing in the Pacific Coast League.

Billy Martin was the Denver manager and Don Zimmer managed San Diego. 

That night there was a sparse crowd. As a result, we sat directly behind the third base dugout and watched in the early innings of game #1 as Zimmer continued to ignore a young boy's plea for an autograph. That's when I, foolish as I was, began to berate Zimmer for not granting the kid's request and signing the autograph.

After a few innings, Zimmer approached us, apologized and asked us to locate the kid.

Since there weren't many fans in the park that night, the search was short, the kid was found, the autograph was given and we all smiled happily.

Zimmer undoubtedly broke the league's rules that night for signing an autograph during a game, but he sure showed just what a truly "big man" he was for doing so.

And that's my Don Zimmer story.

I'm sure the "kid" never forgot his good fortune that summer night in Denver. I know that my Dad and I never did.

Because that night "Minor Leaguer" Don Zimmer showed us both just what a true and genuine "Major Leaguer" really was. To both my Dad and me, Zimmer proved himself to be a really "big" man that night.

So that's how I'll always choose to remember him, and my beautiful night long ago at the ball park with my Dad and Don Zimmer.

May they both rest in peace.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

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