Don Zimmer: A Personal Remembrance

MLB Photos via Getty Images

He might not have been the best player, or the best manager. But Don Zimmer was baseball personified.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was working at ABC-7, we ran a Sunday night sports highlights show after the 10 p.m. news. For a couple of years, one of the features of this show was to have the local baseball managers -- whoever was in town -- come on the show to talk about his team, the Cubs or White Sox.

At the time, the two managers were Don Zimmer and Jeff Torborg. The contrast couldn't have been greater. Torborg, 10 years younger than Zimmer and still in trim, near-playing shape, would show up for his appearance in perfectly-tailored suits, not a hair out of place, always with a fashionable, matching shirt-and-tie set.

I'm not sure Don Zimmer ever wore a tie in his life. He'd amble onto the set with an open-collar shirt and ill-fitting sport jacket, looking as if he'd selected the clothes from his closet with the lights turned off. His haircuts can best be described as an afterthought.

But man, the stories he told. 25 years later, I can't recall specific stories, and I wish I could, because I do remember he had the studio crew in stitches laughing each Sunday evening before the show. He always had a smile on his face and clearly enjoyed every moment he spent talking baseball, every moment he spent in baseball, which was literally his entire adult life until he passed away Wednesday at 83. Incidentally, thanks to Josh for posting that while I was at Wrigley Field Wednesday evening, something Don Zimmer surely would have understood, because there's no doubt the happiest moments of his life were spent at ballparks.

It's worth remembering that Zimmer, signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers out of high school in Cincinnati (Western Hills, the same school that would produce Pete Rose 10 years later), was, during his minor-league career, considered a top prospect. In 1953, at age 22, he was hitting .300/.347/.584 with 23 home runs in just 81 games when he was hit in the head. The oft-heard story that he had a "metal plate" in his head isn't true; he did have surgery and had titanium "buttons" inserted in his skull. Three years later he got beaned again and that affected his vision. Instead of having a great career, Zimmer bounced around from the Dodgers to the Cubs (where he had his only All-Star appearance in 1961) to the first-year expansion Mets to the Washington Senators, hitting .235/.290/.372 in 1,095 games.

Then he went to play a year in Japan, where he was lauded for learning the language, something most American players didn't do in that era when they played there. He returned to become a minor-league and then major-league manager, with the Padres, Red Sox and Rangers. He was Boston's manager when they blew a 14½-game lead to the Yankees and lost the A.L. East tiebreaker in 1978.

From 1984-86 he was the Cubs' third-base coach. The thing I'll most remember about that tenure was a tirade he and Jim Frey got involved in when Ron Cey hit what appeared to be a home run. The ball was first ruled fair, then foul, and check out what the Retrosheet boxscore says about this incident:

Ron Cey hit a ball that was ruled fair by 3B umpire Steve Rippley; Mario Soto ran to Rippley and argued the call; Soto bumped Rippley and was ejected; the call was reversed and Cubs manager Jim Frey ejected by HP umpire Paul Runge; Soto ran onto the field after the reversal but was restrained by Brad Gulden and Cubs coach Don Zimmer; as Soto was led back to the bench, a Wrigley Field vendor hit Soto with a cup of ice; Soto was suspended for 5 days

That game was Dennis Eckersley's first start as a Cub. Eckersley had played for Zimmer in Boston and you can only imagine what he must have been thinking when this all went down. Here's video of what happened that day.

Zimmer departed along with Frey, but returned in 1988 as Cubs manager after Gene Michael was fired. That led to the memorable 1989 "Boys of Zimmer" division title season; I often contended that the Cubs won in spite of Zimmer rather than because of him. He'd pull weird stunts like hits and runs with the bases loaded or a triple steal with the pitcher at the plate, and his failure to note what the count was during NLCS Game 3 when making a pitching change was thought to help lead to the Cubs' loss in that game.

A personal note about that disastrous event, when Zimmer brought Les Lancaster in, replacing Paul Assenmacher, to face Robby Thompson with what he thought was a 1-0 count on Thompson. It wasn't; the count was 2-0. I can tell you that when a mid-at-bat pitching change is made, I note the count on my scorecard. The Candlestick Park scoreboard had it wrong; I wrote "1-0" because that's what was on the board. Zimmer, of course, could have checked with one of the umpires but apparently didn't, and perhaps Lancaster would have pitched Thompson differently with a 1-0 count than the 2-0 pitch he thought he was throwing. Instead, Lancaster's first pitch, a fastball right down the middle, was nailed for a two-run homer, giving the Giants the lead and eventually the game.

Oh, well.

Two years later Zimmer, managing a team that had been expected to contend after some expensive free-agent signings (George Bell, Danny Jackson, Dave Smith) and instead was floundering around .500, gave then-GM Larry Himes an ultimatum: Zimmer wanted a contract extension. Instead, Himes fired him and replaced him with the ultimately-forgettable Jim Essian.

Zimmer never managed again, instead becoming Joe Torre's trusted bench coach through the Yankees' World Series run in the late 1990s. He memorably got into a scuffle with the Red Sox' Pedro Martinez during the 2003 ALCS -- when Zim was 72 years old! Zimmer spent the last 11 years in semi-retirement in the Tampa area, serving as a senior adviser to Rays management. Tampa Bay's owner had high praise for Zimmer:

"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."

The photo at the top of this post is from a game at Wrigley May 9, 1989, when Zimmer was ejected for arguing an interference call. This is how most of us will remember him -- standing up for his players, arguing until it looked like the buttons on his shirt would pop open and steam would come out of his ears, always creating new stories to tell.

Rest in peace, Don Zimmer; condolences to your family and all the friends you made in 65 years in baseball. What an amazing life he led.

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