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Tampa Bay Rays' Don Zimmer's career stretches to 63rd year

PORT CHARLOTTE

Talk about extra innings.

Don Zimmer has leaned against more chain-link fences, listened to more national anthems and broken in more caps and cleats than just about anyone.

This season marks Zimmer's 63rd consecutive year in professional baseball (major and minor leagues), and although baseball doesn't keep track of longevity in both leagues, it's likely that Zimmer's streak is second only to legendary Connie Mack, a Hall of Famer who spent 64 consecutive seasons in pro ball, most of them managing the Philadelphia Athletics. Since 2004, Zimmer has been the Tampa Bay Rays' senior baseball adviser.

To get a handle on this, consider that 63 seasons is roughly 10,000 baseball games. That's about 2,000 more games than the New York Mets have played in the club's entire history. Oh, and Zimmer was on their original roster in 1962. And he was the first player to try on a Mets uniform.

Zimmer got beaned and almost died in 1953, he got unceremoniously tossed to the ground by Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez in the 2003 playoffs, and in between, his career as a player and a manager was good, but not remarkable.

And yet at age 80, in a profession where you're hired to be fired, he's still in the dugout.

Ironically, Zimmer never asked anyone for a job. It just happened. And he never asked for a salary. He figured his bosses would give him what he was worth and that the pay would be fair. He was right most of the time.

Of course, it hasn't all been fun and games. There were plenty of times he was certain he and baseball would part company.

Sitting on a bench next to the Rays spring training field recently, still holding a bat from the morning workout, the man everyone simply calls Zim said he has just been lucky. Like the time he was fired as a manager (he doesn't remember which of the four teams it was) and had no prospects. Baseball's winter meetings were in Dallas that year. "My wife said I should fly out and try to get a job,'' he said. "I said no. I'd hate to ask my friends for a job. If they didn't have one for me, they'd feel terrible.''

But he went anyway and got a room at the hotel where the meetings were held.

"I got off the elevator and looked into the room where all the baseball people were,'' he said. "I knew them all. I turned around and went back upstairs, packed my bags and flew home. I didn't want to put anybody on the spot by asking for a job.''

But if Zimmer couldn't find baseball, baseball found him.

A few days later, the phone rang and he was working again.

The keys to his staying power are, in essence, a passion for baseball, an institutional knowledge of the game and some luck.

He gets almost daily reminders of how fortunate he is.

"I get so many phone calls from guys who think I can get them a job,'' he said. "Well, hell, I wish I could. But I don't know so many of the general managers. They're all younger than me.''

Zimmer and baseball go back almost to the beginning of his life. His father, Harold "Dud" Zimmer, owned a wholesale fruit and vegetable business in Cincinnati that was within a hard line drive of the Reds ballpark. His young son would go to work at 2 a.m. loading produce on wagons. "I thought that was really something,'' Zimmer said.

As a teenager, he played on his dad's softball team, and a week after he graduated from high school in 1949, he was on a train to Cambridge, Md. "With a suitcase,'' Zimmer said, smiling, "scared to death. But I wanted to be a ballplayer.

"A lot of kids wanted to be a ballplayer and couldn't. I wanted to be, and it happened.''

An excellent infielder, his career batting average is just .235. But he owns six World Series rings, two from his playing days as a Dodger and four as a coach with the Yankees.

After he quit the Yankees in 2003, he thought his string had ended. But he was home, in Treasure Island, less than a week when he got a call from then Rays owner Vince Naimoli. He wanted to meet Zimmer at Tropicana Field along with Lou Piniella, then the Rays manager.

"I wondered what they wanted,'' Zimmer said. "Finally, Lou said he wanted me to be in uniform for the 81 home games, and then watch the game in the stands with the scouts. This was something new to me. Watching through the screen. I never did that before and it took me a while to get used to it.''

But unlike other former players like Yogi Berra, who make limited appearances, Zimmer works the whole season and stays involved. He's not a curiosity.

When the Rays were sold to Stuart Sternberg in late 2005, Zimmer again thought he was gone. But baseball still wasn't done with him. The Rays asked Zimmer if he'd like to stay on, and he agreed.

"He brings so much to me personally and to the organization,'' said Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman, who added that Zimmer has forged especially strong bonds with Rays Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton. "The knowledge he passes on to others is unrivaled,'' Friedman said. "He helps me in talking about players and his passion for the game is infectious. He's someone who makes all of us better because of who he is.

Every year he has been with the Rays, Zimmer's uniform number has gone up by one. This year, he's No. 63 in your program. "I look forward to him wearing No. 70 for the Rays,'' Friedman said. "Although we'll have to work a trade with (manager) Joe Maddon, because that's his number.''

If there is a sad side to his story, it's that many of Zimmer's former teammates are gone, including Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Don Drysdale.

Zimmer is asked about the Bear Bryant factor. After coaching for more than 45 years, the Alabama football icon died in 1983, just a month after he retired. Coaches like Joe Paterno who remain active long after normal retirement age are often asked if they're afraid that if they stop working, they'll stop living. Like Bear Bryant.

"There is something to that,'' Zimmer said. "I wouldn't know where to go. I'd miss spring training. I'd miss the ball games. I just wouldn't know what to do with myself.''

Then a smile sneaked across his face. ''I don't think my wife (Soot) could stand me if I was home all day long,'' he said. "I don't know how to pound a nail into a piece of wood or fix a toilet. Someone asked me how I stayed married for 60 years.

"I'm gone half the time.''

Zimmer was reminded that when he first started playing, the players left their gloves on the field when they went into the dugout. "And I never once saw a batted ball hit a glove.''

And besides, managing today, he said, "wouldn't be my bag. There's so many things different, like lighter bats and pitch counts.

"Can you imagine going out to Robin Roberts or Lou Gehrig said he was the luckiest man on Earth, then I'm the second-luckiest.''

Then he smiled, turned his head and looked out across the field.

"Here I am.''

St. Petersburg freelance writer Tom Zucco is a former longtime reporter for the Times. He can be reached at tomzucco@yahoo.com.

Donald "Popeye"
William Zimmer

Born: Jan. 17, 1931, in Cincinnati

MLB debut: July 2, 1954

Position: infielder

Bats: right

Throws: right

Sources: MLB.com, Times files

Some stats

• 18 Teams in the majors and the minors he has called home

• 9 Major-league teams that he has been a coach or manager for: Rays, Expos, Padres, Red Sox, Rangers, Yankees, Cubs, Giants and Rockies

• 5 Major-league teams played for: Brooklyn (and L.A.) Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets and Washington Senators

• 63 Seasons in pro baseball

• 6 World Series rings (two as a player with the Dodgers, four as a coach with the Yankees)

• 60 Years of marriage to
his wife, Soot

• 1961 The year he made the NL All-Star team

• .235 Career average

• 12 Seasons as a major-league infielder

• 1989 Manager of the year, Chicago Cubs

Sources: MLB.com, Times files

THAT'S ZIM

Each year he
has been with the Rays, Zimmer's uniform number has gone up by one. This year, he's No. 63 in your program.
"I look forward to him wearing No. 70 for the Rays,'' said Andrew Friedman. "Although we'll have to work a trade with (manager) Joe Maddon, because that's his number.''

THAT'S ZIM

One of Zimmer's teammates on
his father's softball team was Pete Rose's dad, Harry.

THAT'S ZIM

Don and Soot Zimmer were married on Aug. 16, 1951 — where else? — at home plate. The ceremony took place before a Class A Elmira (N.Y.) Pioneers game. Zimmer's best man was the team's second baseman,
and the rest of the team formed an archway with bats.

Tampa Bay Rays' Don Zimmer's career stretches to 63rd year 03/23/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 4:42pm]

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