I really had no reason to go the Trop last night. The Rays were back after a bad road trip and tensions were high all around town on how bad the Rays have been this season. But for some reason I felt I had to be at the ballpark. I don’t know why, my wife asked me to come home for dinner three times yesterday, but each time for some unknown reason I said no, I told her I needed to be at the ballpark. Something was drawing me to a baseball game last night. When I settled into my seat in the press box, there was something amiss. People were stirring walking abound and whispering on their cellphones. There was something brewing, something was going on last night. It was something that none of us around baseball wanted to hear. Zim was gone. Don Zimmer the walking talking encyclopedia of our game. The man who could tell you about anything that happened in the last 66 years in baseball, not because he read about the story, but because he saw it with his own eyes.
He played with Jackie Robinson, and they were life-long friends. After Robinson retired he went to work for Choc Full O Nuts coffee. He would travel the country on sales trips. He called Zimmer soon after he took the job, and told Zim he was coming down to Florida and asked him to play golf. Zim said yes, and was amazed that here was the great Jackie Robinson asking a “humpty like me” to play golf. Only Zim could put it like that.
What is a humpty? That is how Zim described his playing career. He played over a decade in the big leagues. He won two World Series titles with the Dodgers and was named to the All Star team. He still called him self a Humpty, as in Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, this is how he portrayed himself, a role player, a bench player, a part-time player. Most men would boast about playing for the legendary Dodgers of Flatbush, but not Zimmer. Nope he never once mentioned to me about winning two World Series rings. It just wasn’t his style. He was as plainspoken, and unpretentious as they come.
He was intense and loved this game of his. I once told him at the end of the season, see you next year Zim. He said he hoped the team wanted him back next season. I replied “Zim if anyone one of us is going to be here forever it’s you. You deserve a lifetime contract” His retort, “no kid, if they want me back I’ll be back”. That was typical Zim.
The old Tampa Bay Devil Rays were a train wreck. There was nothing to take pride in. No history, no hall of famers, no pennants, nothing that the team could use as a corner stone to build upon. Zimmer had tired of the way that Joe Torre was treated by the Yankees and stood up for his dear friend and manager. He talked himself out of the gig with the Bronx Bombers. Without a baseball job, he came back to Treasure Island and was ready to settle down. Tampa Bay owner Vince Naimaoli, GM Chuck Lamar, and Skipper Lou Piniella reached out to him and asked if he wanted to come work for the Devil Rays as a senior advisor. He asked what is that? Well you can be in uniform everyday and you will talk with the players, sponsors and fans. He said yes and the doormat of baseball changed its fortunes forever.
With Zimmer as a compass the franchise turned things around. He never spoke up unless asked, but when you asked what he thought you better be ready to hear what he had to say. All came to the great and powerful Zim for his sage advice. Managers, coaches, and players came to soak up what Zim had to say. One of the special relationships he developed was with Evan Longoria. Just as he mentored the future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, he did the same for the future All Star Longoria. They would sit in the dugout and talk baseball with Longo hanging on his every word. Helping to mold Evan, teaching him the game, passing on it’s secrets and mysteries the same way Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider pulled a young infielder from Ohio aside and taught him the game.
Watching an emotional Evan Longoria speak of his relationship with Zimmer last night was tough. He spoke from the heart about what Zimmer meant to him and all us around the game. He was a father figure to so many people in and around the game. Teaching us the game, and why it is the greatest game the good lord ever created. So many looked up to him, so many will miss him, but his legacy lives on in all those he touched. From Bernie Carbo, to Derek Jeter, to Jonny Gomes, to Evan Longoria. In a way, they are all his baseball family that lives on and in a way, all of us are the Sons of Don Zimmer.