ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays paid tribute to the remarkable baseball life of Don Zimmer on Sunday by making him the first inductee into their new team Hall of Fame.
“He was one of the most charismatic and iconic personalities our sport has ever seen,” Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said during a pregame ceremony. “With a career spanning an incredible 66 years, Don was a true legend in the game.”
Zimmer family members said afterward that the opportunity in 2004 to join his hometown Rays as a senior advisor at age 73 extended that life.
“The Rays hiring him, I think it made his lifetime longer,” said his wife, Soot, 92. “Being around the guys, the young fellas and that, it’s what he was used to. He wasn’t sitting home just getting old. He was still doing what he loved.”
Don Zimmer had just left the Yankees after an eight-year run as then-manager Joe Torre’s bench coach, including four World Series championships, when original Rays owner Vince Naimoli and then-general manager Chuck LaMar offered him the chance to work for them while being minutes from his longtime Treasure Island-area home.
“It was like a life extender for him to be here,” said his son, Tom.
When Sternberg and his team of baseball neophytes took over the Rays after the 2005 season, Don Zimmer didn’t know what would happen or how they would get along.
But he wasn’t going anywhere. The new regime also greatly valued him sharing his wisdom and experience, and providing guidance and counsel to their young players. Don struck a close bond with many, most notably rising star Evan Longoria.
The 11 years he spent with the Rays turned out to be his most with any team.
“For Stu and his group at that time to tell him, ‘You’re here for as long as you want to be here,’ that was like, ‘Wow,’ " Tom Zimmer said. “His friends are going, ‘How do we get one of those jobs like that?’ "
As Don began dealing with more health issues, having dialysis three days a week, then eventually heart problems, the chance to come to the ballpark was motivating. “He kept pushing,” Tom said.
Though he eventually needed help getting dressed — with Rays coach Tom Foley (who also spoke at Sunday’s ceremony) and logistics/travel director Chris Westmoreland usually lending a hand — Don wanted to pull on his jersey and pants.
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“I can’t imagine putting that uniform on every day for all those years,” Soot said.
Don died June 4, 2014, at age 83, and the Rays retired his No. 66 the next season.
The Hall of Fame was launched this year to coincide with the Rays’ 25th-anniversary celebration. A custom blazer and piece of original art marked Sunday’s occasion, plus first-pitch duties that were handled by 7-year-old Carter, one of Don’s great-grandsons.
That Don was the first inductee, with Wade Boggs going in on July 9 and Carl Crawford on Aug. 26, meant even more to the Zimmer family.
“I was very surprised and proud,” Soot said. “It just started, and to think that he would be the first one, it amazed me. That was great that they thought enough of him to make him go in first. That made a very big impression on me.”
Just like Don made on the Rays.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.
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