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  1. Rays

Rays adviser Don Zimmer, widely seen as a baseball treasure, dies

Don Zimmer remains a positive presence in the Rays dugout before opening day in 2013. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2013)]
Published Jun. 5, 2014

Don Zimmer had a lot to say during his 66 years in baseball. • Get him started, and it usually didn't take much, and he would talk with passion and vigor, telling stories rich in detail about the life he led: • About being teammates with Jackie Robinson during his 12 years playing in the majors, or managing the Red Sox and Cubs during historic seasons, or having a prime seat on the bench for the Yankees' dynastic run, or getting the chance to come home and work for the Rays. • And then he would stop and smile and deliver his own punch line: • "A pretty good career for a .235 hitter.'' • Indeed it was.

And Mr. Zimmer, who died Wednesday night at age 83, will be long remembered as one of the most likable and respected personalities the game had ever seen.

"Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man,'' Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "Don dedicated his life to the game he loved, and his impact will be felt for generations to come. "

"He's a legend, there's no question about it,'' said longtime major league manager Jim Leyland, a close friend. "You think about what this guy's done, what he's meant to baseball — it's unbelievable.''

Mr. Zimmer's career spanned eight decades, starting as a minor league player in 1949 at age 18 and spending his last 11 seasons as a senior adviser for the Rays.

After Wednesday's game, Rays manager Joe Maddon, in tears, said, "We lost a good buddy tonight.''

Other Rays were equally touched.

"It's all of our loss,'' third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Zim was a great man. There's no words to explain what he brought to us and what he meant to me.''

"Zim was a very special person to all of us,'' pitcher David Price said. "He was a very special person in baseball period."

Mr. Zimmer had a similar impact on other teams he worked for previously.

"He's the true definition of a baseball lifer,'' said Yankees star Derek Jeter. "Zim helped me out a lot when I first came up. You want to talk about people that have seen everything in the sport? Zim has been in baseball for, what, 65 years? He's a guy that has seen absolutely everything. I used to enjoy listening to Zim. He had great stories, was very knowledgeable about the game.''

Mr. Zimmer, a 50-plus year resident of Pinellas County, had been dealing with an increasing number of health problems. He had a minor stroke in 2008, was receiving dialysis treatment three days a week over the last several years and was having increasing trouble getting around due to shortness of breath and fatigue.

Mr. Zimmer underwent April 16 heart surgery to repair a leaky valve but had remained hospitalized and on a ventilator due to fibrosis in his lungs. He died at 6:50 p.m. Wednesday at BayCare Alliant Hospital in Dunedin after his blood pressure dropped. His wife, Soot, had just shaved him and applied his favorite cologne, then left for dinner after spending the day at his side, as she had every day.

"He went peacefully,'' son Tom Zimmer said. "In baseball terms, be battled the best he could but simply was running out of gas.''

The Rays will honor Zimmer with a moment of silence at today's game, and with a pregame ceremony Saturday. They also will add a patch to their uniforms. Services are pending.

Mr. Zimmer's last on-field appearance came at the Rays' March 31 season opener at Tropicana Field. He sat in a golf cart, wearing oxygen tubes, when he was introduced to the roaring crowd. Before that he stopped by the Rays clubhouse as players and staff filed in to visit .

Mr. Zimmer played parts of 12 seasons in the majors, with the Dodgers, Cubs, Mets, Reds and Senators, but went on to a long career as a coach (including a long stint with the Yankees) and a manager, leading the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs.

Overall, he won six World Series rings — two as a player for the Dodgers (1955, 1959) and four as a coach for the Yankees.

Among Mr. Zimmer's greatest successes as a manager was guiding the 1989 Cubs to a division title and a berth in the playoffs, for which he was voted the National League manager of the year. Among his disappointments was managing the 1978 Red Sox team that blew a 14-game lead and eventually the division title in a one-game playoff known for Bucky Dent's dramatic home run. His overall managerial record was 885-858.

Mr. Zimmer was proud of his life in baseball — which included getting married at home plate — often making the point that he never got a paycheck anywhere else, and never asked for a job, because the people who did the hiring in baseball knew his phone number and would call if they wanted to hire him.

He was known for being generous with his time and willing to share stories, but also for being direct with his opinions, showing an ornery side at times as well.

"He's one of the most bull-headed human beings I've ever met in my life — and, ironically, that's the thing I like about him the most,'' Leyland said. "He gives his opinion and he believes in what he believes in and he sticks by it. There's no wavering, there's no wishy-washy stuff. … He just tells it like it is.''

Maddon said what stood out to him was Zimmer's "feistiness and fire. He brought that on a daily basis.''

Mr. Zimmer was widely admired by players and coaches throughout the game, who took to calling him "Zim" or "Popeye" for his baseball wisdom, personality and look. He had a unique ability to relate to everyone — from young players of divergent backgrounds to old-time coaches and scouts.

"Great baseball man,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in New York, also in tears. "A baseball lifer. He was a mentor to me. I had him 10 out of my first 11 years in the big leagues, so wherever he went, I went. ... He taught me a lot about this game. A close friend. I'm going to miss him."

Mr. Zimmer also had scars to show from his time in the game, having twice been hit in the head by pitches. One time required surgery and was so severe he said he woke up two weeks later and thought it was still the day of the game.

Mr. Zimmer would often show his sense of humor. As a coach for the Yankees — where he was an integral part of their four World Series titles from 1996-2003 — he was struck by a foul ball in the dugout and showed up at the next game wearing an Army helmet.

And there were times when Mr. Zimmer would show his temper.

One of his more memorable moments came during the 2003 American League Championship series, when he was a 72-year-old coach for the Yankees. Mr. Zimmer came charging out of the dugout, wild-eyed, as players for the Yankees and Red Sox swarmed the infield during a confrontation, and swung and missed with a haymaker intended for Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez, who threw him to the ground. Mr. Zimmer later apologized, but fans widely saw what he did as further proof of his passion for the game.

"That was him,'' Jeter said. "He was a fighter. He was intense. That exemplifies him. He was into the game and he was fun to be around."

Donald William Zimmer was born in Cincinnati in 1931. While in high school, his team won the American Legion national championship, after which Mr. Zimmer got to meet Babe Ruth.

He started playing minor league baseball in 1949 and made his major league debut in 1954 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing alongside Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese to launch a career that would bring him in contact with hundreds of the game's biggest stars.

He played third base, second base and shortstop for the Dodgers (Brooklyn and Los Angeles), Chicago Cubs (earning his lone All-Star selection as a player), New York Mets (and was the first to model the expansion team's new uniforms), Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Senators before finishing out his playing career in Japan, and then going into coaching.

His eight-year stint with the Yankees — especially working alongside manager Joe Torre —was quite successful, but he left following a falling out with owner George Steinbrenner after the 2003 season.

Mr. Zimmer joined the then-Devil Rays in 2004 after getting a lunch invitation from team owner Vince Naimoli, who was joined by general manager Chuck LaMar and manager Lou Piniella, a longtime friend. Mr. Zimmer had long considered the Rays his hometown team and welcomed the opportunity to join them, though had declined to pursue a job until they asked him.

Piniella broke the ice, asking Mr. Zimmer to serve as senior adviser, a position the team had essentially created just for him. He could travel with the team if he wanted to or just work home games, wear a uniform if he wanted to. "And he did a heck of a job,'' Piniella said.

Mr. Zimmer moved several years ago from Treasure Island to Seminole. He lived there with Jean, his wife — known affectionately as Soot — since a 1951 marriage ceremony at home plate in the Elmira, N.Y., stadium.

Mr. Zimmer was often seen at Derby Lane, marking multiple programs in front of simulcast screens on the second floor. "He thought he was the all-time best handicapper,'' Leyland said.

As his health began to fail, Mr. Zimmer's visits to Tropicana Field became less frequent, but whenever he did show up players and staff made sure to visit.

In recent weeks, the team paid tribute to him with a ZIM sign at Tropicana Field and by having third base coach Tom Foley wear his No. 66 jersey with ZIMMER across the back.

As the Rays headed home Wednesday night, Zimmer's jersey hung in their clubhouse.

"He's going to be missed,'' Foley said. "He touched a lot of lives.''

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

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