Don Zimmer was more baseball than you.
For the last six-and-a-half decades, he had been playing or coaching baseball–in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, and wherever teams would pay him to do so. From 18 to 83, he worked on the diamond. He boasted that baseball was the only real job he ever knew, which meant he never had a real job in his 83-year life. A decade ago, like so many senior citizens, he migrated to Florida to retire. Unlike other senior citizens, Zimmer’s idea of retirement involved coaching the Tampa Bay Rays during spring training and home games. He increased his uniform number–up to 66 this season–to reflect the years he had spent in professional baseball. As an octogenarian, he maintained a boy’s passion for a kids’ game.
He married his wife at home plate during the break between a minor-league double-header in 1951. He won World Series rings playing for both the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. He played on the second incarnation of the Washington Senators then later managed them when they called themselves the Texas Rangers. He was an original Met. He became hated twice in Boston, first as a manager who blew a 14-game lead to the Yankees in 1978 and then a quarter-century later as a Yankees bench coach who famously charged Pedro Martinez during a bench-clearing brawl. He was teammates with Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson. Casey Stengel managed him and then 27 years later Zimmer won NL Manager of the Year accolades as Chicago Cubs skipper. He played in two All-Star games–albeit both during the 1961 season when MLB strangely staged the contest on both coasts.
Players who liked him called him “Popeye.” Players who loathed him called him “Gerbil.”
Don Zimmer lived for baseball. Baseball almost killed him. In 1953, before the days of obligatory batting helmets, a fastball met his skull and Zimmer almost met his maker. He spent nearly two weeks in a coma. When he returned to baseball, he did so with screws in his head. God built him for the diamond. Doctors rebuilt him for the diamond.
“My own theory was that Zimmer, having twice been beaned, had a subconscious hatred of pitchers as a species,” the Boston Globe‘s Bob Ryan hypothesizes. “There is no doubt the relationship was counterproductive. All I can tell you is that Don Zimmer was a kind and thoughtful man when in the company of non-pitchers.”
David Price, recently embroiled in a beanball war, surely thought otherwise. “Zim was a very special person to all of us,” Price of the Tampa Bay Rays, Zimmer’s last and longest stop in his lifetime in the game, reflected to ABC News. “A very special person in baseball, period.” Perhaps he had mellowed with age. “He always lit everybody’s faces up whenever he’d walk in,” Price noted. “Zim had a passion for baseball that rubs off on everybody.”
Don Zimmer–Dodger, Cub, Met, Red, Senator, Padre, Red Sock, Ranger, Expo, Yankee, Giant, Rockie, Ray–1931-2014, rest in peace.