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Rays honor Don Zimmer

ST. PETERSBURG

Jim Leyland couldn't help but note the coincidence that the three most important things in good buddy Don Zimmer's life were family, baseball and horse racing.

And here they were Saturday afternoon to celebrate that wonderful life, Zimmer's family and closest friends gathered for a ceremony on the Trop field with the Belmont Stakes about to be run with a Triple Crown in the balance.

"Today would have been a big day for him," Leyland said.

As much as Zimmer didn't want anyone to make a fuss when he was alive, he was even more adamant that there wouldn't be a formal funeral when he was gone.

Instead, the Rays arranged a most fitting farewell, a brief and touching onfield ceremony for the baseball legend who died Wednesday at age 83.

"This has been something else," his widow, Soot, said, having cried so much she had to trade contacts for glasses. "I know he's up there looking down. He said I started on the ball field, and we were married on the ball field. And he ended up being celebrated for his life on the ball field. I can't think of a better way to go."

A video tribute included priceless photos and words of praise from current Rays and one former, as James Shields sent along his own, plus Yankees star Derek Jeter and manager Joe Girardi. Frank Sinatra's My Way and Mel Torme's My Buddy served as the soundtrack, and there was a bagpipe rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist offered a prayer, TV man Dewayne Staats a few words around a moment of silence. The Rays unveiled the ZIM patch they'll wear on their right sleeve for the rest of the season, manager Joe Maddon presenting one to Soot. Zimmer's family was honored with the first pitch.

"Perfect," son Tom said of the ceremony. "Big-league. … Emotional."

There were subtle touches as well. Both the Rays and Mariners wore the No. 23 1950s-era Brooklyn Dodgers jersey Zimmer wore as a rookie. Soot Zimmer was seated on the field in Don's chair from the clubhouse with his name and No. 66 on the back. Granddaughter Whitney Goldstein wore one of Don's old game-used gloves when she fired the first pitch to Tom.

For family and friends, it was the perfect ending.

"The ballpark was his tabernacle," said Joe Torre, his close friend, former Yankees manager and current MLB executive. "That's been his life."

Zimmer's 66-year career in baseball spanned eight decades, starting as an 18-year-old minor-leaguer in 1949, playing parts of 12 seasons in the majors, then managing or coaching or senior advising for the next 42, the last 11 with his hometown Rays.

Zimmer became one of the game's most popular and iconic figures, known as much for his oversized personality, sense of humor and almost caricatured look. Leyland said it was important to appreciate him for what he really was.

"I just hope people remember what a great baseball man this guy was," Leyland said. "He was a character, but he wasn't somebody that you laughed at when you understood how much this guy knew about baseball and his passion for the game and his passion for people."

The turnout Saturday spoke to his stature as Torre and Leyland were joined by longtime managers Lou Piniella and Tommy Lasorda plus former Yankees and Rays star Tino Martinez and nearly 24,000 fans.

The attention Zimmer attracted amazed him and his family.

"You'd go to New York, Chicago, Boston, the big cities, and he couldn't walk down the streets," son Tom said. "You'd start laughing because it was like he's just a simple person, but they treated him like a rock star."

Making it even more amusing was when celebrities, including Paul Newman and Kevin Costner, would want to meet Zimmer.

"He talked to movie stars and rock stars, and he didn't even know who they were half the time," Tom said. "One day (actor) Danny DeVito came down to the dugout and wants to meet him. … My dad looks down and thought it was an old jockey."

Everyone had stories, of course, from Lasorda telling tales of sneaking around Puerto Rico with Zimmer when they first roomed together as young Dodgers to Goldstein recounting how he lectured her not to slide head-first.

Torre talked about how Zimmer's brazenness made him a more aggressive manager, joked about Zimmer's disdain for ties (and loosened his horse-themed one when Staats made a simi­lar reference during the ceremony), and admitted his regret in having Zimmer fill in for him during the 1999 season because it deteriorated Zimmer's relationship with owner George Steinbrenner.

Leyland told tales as much about betting on horses (and what a good handi­capper Zimmer thought he was) as baseball. One day when he was managing the Pirates and Zimmer the Cubs, their teams squabbled during the game. They had plans to go to the track after the game, but Zimmer was so mad they didn't talk until the fourth race.

There were tears and smiles, laughs and hugs as the celebration unfolded.

"It was a great life," Soot Zimmer said. "No regrets. He loved every minute of it."

And as for the ceremony, well, it was too good a life not to do something, though they had a pretty good idea what Zimmer would have thought.

"He's probably up there changing stations right now looking for something more interesting than talking about him," Torre said.

Added Leyland: "He'd probably rather watch the Belmont than his ceremony."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

Rays honor Don Zimmer 06/07/14 [Last modified: Saturday, June 7, 2014 10:35pm]
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