ST. PETERSBURG — Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer said each of the 54 big-league opening days he has experienced has been special in its own way.
But Zimmer, 82, will likely never forget his latest Tuesday. At the urging of bench coach Dave Martinez, the entire Rays team stood behind home plate as Zimmer's son, Tom, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to 3B Evan Longoria, making for a touching and emotional moment.
All players, coaches and staff members helped deliver the ball to Zimmer, who had tears in his eyes as he was flanked by wife, Soot, daughter-in-law Marian and grandsons Bo and Ron.
"I thought he really responded to us; you could tell he was a little bit emotional," 2B Ben Zobrist said. "He really cares about us, every one of us individually. To see all of us out there, I think that was special for him and you could see that in his face."
Said manager Joe Maddon: "That was outstanding. … He absolutely deserves that. That whole moment was very, very good. The photographs are going to be outstanding with that, I'm sure."
Maddon said Zimmer, who managed four teams and served as Yankees bench coach, has become iconic. Zimmer, entering his 10th season with the Rays, has been a respected adviser to the staff and an invaluable resource to players, including Longoria, who calls him a "great mentor" and "great ambassador for baseball."
But with Zimmer having to undergo dialysis eight hours a day, he wasn't around as much this spring and admitted it's a struggle for him to walk. Zimmer, who is usually in uniform in the dugout for every home game, feels incredibly lucky to be in baseball for 65 years and said it was important his family was there for Tuesday's opener.
Said Zimmer: "You never know if it's going to be the last."
LINING UP: Maddon was making final decisions on his lineup for tonight vs. LHP Wei-Yin Chen. He plans to include DH Shelley Duncan and C Jose Lobaton but hadn't decided which left-handed hitter to use, saying he was wavering at first base and leftfield. That sounds like a decision between Sam Fuld and Kelly Johnson, with Sean Rodriguez playing the other position.
BOSS' VIEW: Principal owner Stuart Sternberg admitted it felt "a little topsy-turvy" without "an all-consuming focus on the Yankees and Red Sox," but his goal for the season remains the same: "Meaningful games in the month of September. I never come past that." Sternberg sounded somewhat optimistic about the stadium situation (see story, 1B) and said the onfield benefit is that a revenue increase "gives us the ability and the confidence to be able to have a larger payroll. As it is right now, we have a large payroll for us that also happens to be one of the lowest in baseball. It's unfortunate those two things intersect."
GOING DEEP: RHP Jeremy Hellickson hopes to begin a season-long goal of going deeper into games. "I think I absolutely can," said Hellickson, who threw 177 innings last year. "It's just a matter of getting quicker outs and throwing more strikes."
MISCELLANY: DH Luke Scott (right calf strain) expects his stint on the disabled list to be "a couple of weeks instead of five." … It was the first win in 12 Tropicana Field starts for ex-Ray RHP Jason Hammel.
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.