Baseball lost a little bit of its soul on Wednesday with the death of Don Zimmer, a character for the ages.
If you wanted to give an outsider an example of a baseball player, you could cite Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout. But if you needed an example of a baseball man, who better than someone who married his high school sweetheart at home plate of a minor league ballpark? That was Zimmer, who did it all, his experiences reflecting some of the storied organizations he worked for.
In the 1950s, Zimmer was the starting second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers on the day they won their only World Series title. In the 1960s, he served as the inaugural third baseman for the Mets, embodying their futility by going hitless in his first 34 at-bats.
In the 1970s, Zimmer managed a powerful Boston Red Sox team, only to watch his players blow a sure division crown. In the 1980s, he guided the Chicago Cubs to the playoffs, a triumph quickly snuffed by inevitable October heartbreak.
In the 1990s, as the bench coach for the Yankees, Zimmer helped Joe Torre lead the team back to glory. In the 2000s, as the glow faded, he quit in a huff, furious at the meddling of the principal owner, George Steinbrenner.
When I say I wont be back, I wont be back, Zimmer declared in a stairwell at the old Yankee Stadium, shortly after the last World Series game played there, in 2003. They could have a day for me. The answer would be no, and only because of him.
Nobody doubted Zimmers resolve. The man had principles and stood his ground. At age 72, in the 2003 playoffs, he had charged at Pedro Martinez during a fracas at Fenway Park. The incident deeply embarrassed Zimmer, but that was him always feisty, always protective of his team.
Zimmer never did work for the Yankees again, spending the rest of his career as a senior baseball adviser to the Tampa Bay Rays, his uniform number changing by a digit each season to match his years in the game. (He was listed as No. 66 this spring.)
But Zimmers legacy will live on with the Yankees for as long as Joe Girardi manages the team. Zimmer was Girardis first manager in the major leagues, with the 1989 Cubs. Zimmer later coached Girardi in Colorado and was his mentor and biggest fan.
In the spring of 2005, at old Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., Zimmer recalled how he challenged Steinbrenner over Girardi, who never had the power of his predecessor as the Yankees catcher, Mike Stanley, but had subtle skills that Steinbrenner missed.
I got in more arguments with Steinbrenner over Joe Girardi than any person that ever argued with Steinbrenner, Zimmer said. Because he knocked him. Thats all he ever did was knock him: My people say he cant do this, cant do that. I told Steinbrenner one day in Tampa: Why dont you get rid of him? I dont want to defend him anymore. Get rid of him. All hes ever done is win.
For the last championship of Steinbrenners life, in 2009, Girardi was in the dugout, managing the Yankees back to the top a winner again, just as Zimmer had said.
Last summer, Zimmer watched on TV from his Florida home as Girardi raced to the defense of Alex Rodriguez when the Red Sox threw at him in a heated game in Boston. Rodriguez was playing while appealing his suspension for using banned drugs, an offense that ran counter to Girardis values.
Even so, Girardi stood up for his player because that is what baseball men do. Zimmer was delighted.
Hes fair; hes honest; he knows the game, Zimmer said over the phone. And he will back his players to the hilt.
That is Girardi, and that was Zimmer, too. Wherever he went and whatever he did, he lived a baseball life.
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