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Don Zimmer: A baseball lifer, still going strong

Don Zimmer is one of baseball's colorful characters heading into his 62nd season in the game. Now a Rays senior adviser, Zimmer, 79, recently talked with Art Levy for Florida Trend's Icon interview series, which is in this month's issue:

• The most important thing is to have a good wife. You're gone half the time, and the wife is home with the kids. It's a tough life. Now they have nannies. We couldn't afford nannies when I played.

• Starting out, I made $140 a month, but I thought I was a millionaire. Getting paid to play baseball? That was something special.

• I never squawked about my salary. I would say that's part of why I'm still in the game after 62 years.

• You can't win if you don't have good players. If you have good players, you're a pretty good manager.

• I got hit in the head in 1953 playing in the minor leagues. I had a skull fracture and was in the hospital 31 days. He was a big, redheaded pitcher. He wasn't throwing at me. He was just wild. We get a Christmas card from his family every year.

• In 1956, I'm up with the Brooklyn Dodgers, game of the week, Saturday afternoon, and I get hit, and it shatters my cheekbone. And I've got almost like a detached retina. Al Campanis always said that he thought that I would have been one hell of a player if not for getting hit.

• I'm the reason for helmets. When I was in the hospital, they made it compulsory in the National League to wear helmets.

• Chicago, 1989, I'm managing the Cubs. Jim Frey was my GM. We're ready to leave spring training and he says to me, "Do you think we could win 81 games this year?" I said, "Jim, if we win 81 games, we'll dance down Michigan Avenue together." Well, we win 93 and the division. If I wanted a double steal, they executed it. If I wanted a bunt, they laid it down. If I wanted a squeeze play, they laid down the squeeze. The newspapers were writing, "Zimmer's a genius! Zimmer's a genius!" The next year, I'm the dumbest guy in the world. That's the way baseball is.

• Boston was a town I loved, but it can be a tough town. I got booed there a lot. We were winning 91, 93, 97, 99 games but never a championship, and I was the cause. People would come down from the upper deck hollering, "Zimmer, you're a bum! You can't manage!" You have to take it. If you fight back, you have a war on your hands.

• You know who I'd like to talk to? I wish I knew him well enough that I could contact him: Tiger Woods. I would love to sit down and talk to him for half an hour, just about what you and I are talking about because he's going to hear things on the tour that he ain't never heard before. Nasty things. If he fights back, he ain't got a chance. But if he takes it like I'm telling you I took it, he'll win them over.

• Jackie Robinson treated me great. I wasn't a great player, but I think what he respected about me is if I had to go through a wall to catch the ball or if I had to dive for a ball, I would. That's the way I played, and he respected that. We became very good friends. Jackie would call me for a golf game. That was a thrill, Jackie Robinson asking Don Zimmer to play golf with him.

• I think they've made it tough on umpires. I'm not an umpire lover. I respect them. I sit there and see a ball that's far outside, and they show it on replay three times. The umpire missed it. Today, the umpires get critiqued pretty good.

• When I go to different events where I have to talk, I always start by saying, "What's a career .235 hitter doing up here on the dais?"

• I don't say much about this, but I'm sitting there in the dugout next to Billy Martin and there was a rule at that time that so many inches up, that's as far as the pine tar can go. George Brett comes up with a bat, and I seen black all the way up to the label. And he hits that home run, and I said to Billy, "I guarantee you that bat is illegal by the rules," and Billy started out. I can still see it, George Brett charging that umpire. I'm not proud of it, but it was a rule.

• For 25 years, George Steinbrenner was my friend, a good friend, but we haven't spoken since I quit the Yankees. I don't regret leaving, but I regret the way it worked out with George.

• I like to go fishing. I'm a city fisherman. I have to go with somebody who knows what they're doing. I break the line, they have to help me fix it.

• Buzzie Bavasi, when I got hit in the head, said, "Go to Florida and recuperate," and he gave me money to come down here. We never left. It's home.

• The thing with Pedro Martinez, that came from a long period. His act to me was tired. He was a great pitcher, but I've seen this guy do things over in their dugout, making gestures at us and throwing at guys. There were just so many things that irritated me. When the brawl happened, I was the last guy in the dugout. I'm just sitting there … too old to fight. I said I can't sit here. So, I started out and I'm looking around for Martinez. Truthfully, what I wanted to do was go after him with my head in his chest and I figured I could knock him down. As it is, he got criticized for throwing an old man on the ground, but he didn't do nothing wrong. He was just protecting himself. The next day, they wanted me to go on television, and our PR guy didn't want me to go on because he thought I was going to say things that I shouldn't say. Hell, I knew what to say. I said I was sorry that I did what I did.

• I knew nothing else but baseball, and I didn't have to know nothing else. Baseball was my life, and after 62 years I'm still here.

Copyright © 2010 Florida Trend Magazine. Reprinted with permission. Further reproduction prohibited.

Don Zimmer: A baseball lifer, still going strong 04/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 3, 2010 9:24pm]
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