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  1. Rays

Don Zimmer, a baseball icon who was one of us, dies at 83

Don Zimmer, involved in many of baseball’s iconic moments, was still loving the game at the Rays’ 2013 opener.
Published Jun. 5, 2014

He was nearly a star once. Long ago, and barely remembered. A power-hitting shortstop who was tearing up Triple A and was expected soon in Brooklyn where he was supposed to nudge Pee Wee Reese over to third base. Then came the curveball that struck him in the temple and kept him in a hospital room for so long that he was 120 pounds by the time they let him back out. Undaunted, he made it to the majors the following summer and was still working as Reese's heir apparent two years later when a fastball shattered his cheekbone. Back to the hospital and more sleepless nights. He would eventually become a useful player for a handful of teams over a dozen seasons but never again was considered a star. And, as it turns out, that was fine. Baseball is always going to have plenty of stars. There will be more than enough athletes with numbers, achievements and awards. For this ballplayer, history had something else in mind. Don Zimmer would become an institution.

It could be argued that Zimmer's life in baseball is without compare. Not for what he accomplished, but for what he represented. He was a participant and a witness, a scene-stealer and a bystander to more of the game's history than perhaps any man who ever wore a uniform.

Zimmer, who passed away Wednesday at 83, was baseball's everyman. He was every dream and every possibility wrapped tightly in a short, round and fierce-looking package.

Mays, Clemente, Koufax. They were otherworldly. Zimmer was one of us. An unremarkable kid from middle America who loved the game for all the right reasons.

He played rough and talked tough but had a soft spot a mile wide. He called bull when he saw it and apologized if his mistakes called for it.

Baseball might occasionally disappoint you but, if you treat it right, it will never abandon you. And so it was that Zimmer says he never had to ask for a job. Not when he was released, not when he was fired, not when he got angry and walked away.

At some point each winter the phone would ring in Treasure Island, and someone would ask Zim if he was ready for another season. Sometimes it meant going to Japan, or taking a step back to the minors, and sometimes it meant they wanted him at Fenway or maybe in pinstripes. That's pretty close to how it worked for most of the past six decades.

Sometimes it seemed the game was all he ever needed. Well, that and Soot.

She was a high school classmate that he was sweet on back in Cincinnati in the 1940s. He once hid under a blanket in the backseat of a car to eavesdrop while his friend quizzed Soot in the front seat about her feelings toward Zim.

They would marry in 1951 at home plate in a minor-league stadium in Elmira, N.Y. Zim played shortstop later that night.

These are some of the reasons Zimmer was beloved. Not because he was a career .235 hitter. Not because he won a few more games than he lost as a manager.

It was because Zim was exactly the way we imagined a ballplayer should be. He should care more about the scoreboard than the paycheck. He should know the game's history, and understand its place in our society. He should come into second base like a freight train, and find time to laugh about it later.

There is no singular achievement that defines Zimmer's career in baseball, and yet there are too many memorable moments to adequately explain it all.

Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series? Zim was on the Brooklyn bench. Carlton Fisk's home run off the foul pole in Game 6 of the '75 World Series? Zim was Boston's third-base coach. He was the opening day third baseman for the '62 Mets, a team that lost 120 games, and the bench coach for the '98 Yankees, a team that won 114.

Zim was heartbroken as a manager in Boston when Bucky Dent homered in the one-game playoff with the Yankees in 1978, and heartbroken again as a coach in Chicago when a ball went between Leon Durham's legs in Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS. He played the outfield next to Willie Mays in winter ball in Puerto Rico, and was on a softball team in Cincinnati with Harry Rose, whose young son Pete would sit nearby.

As a player, coach or manager, Zimmer took part in the World Series eight times, winning six rings along the way.

He wasn't perfect, but we didn't need him to be. It was okay that sometimes he was irascible, because we knew he cared more than anyone else. And if he trusted veterans more than prospects or chewed an ump's ear a little too much, it was exactly the way our fathers once described how the game should be played.

Think about it this way:

Late last night, they were busy preparing obituaries in many of baseball's greatest cities. Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York. They all had chapters in the Zimmer story. If you want to measure the breadth of a man's legacy, that might be a good way to start.

In his later years, he was the ambassador that the baseball world appreciated and Tampa Bay adored. He would sit like Yoda in cleats on the bench at Tropicana Field with a bat resting between his legs, and an audience in the palm of his hand.

He once told a story of playing for Cincinnati's American Legion team in high school and taking a trip to California for the national championship. Zim's team won and he was named the tournament's most valuable player.

At the ceremony afterward, Zimmer got to meet Babe Ruth, who autographed a baseball for the starstruck teenager.

Can you imagine, Zim would say, how much the ball would be worth today? So, someone asks, where is the ball now?

Took it home and used it for sandlot games until the cover came off, Zim said. Then taped the cover back on and used it some more.

That's what a ballplayer does.

That was Don Zimmer.

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