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Zim: The Baseball Man

It's the Don of an old era. The Rays' newest addition has seen it all in more than 50 years in the game.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published January 11, 2004

Don Zimmer has become the modern-day Casey Stengel in baseball, a sport he has embraced for more than half a century.

[Times photo: Bill Serne]

photo
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Cal Zinck of Tack and Cal's barbershop on Treasure Island treats one of his loyal customers who shows up ever three weeks for the routine more than the trim.

Zoot and Don Zimmer were married at a homeplate ceremony in Elmira, N.Y., in 1951.

[Courtesy of Zimmer family]

Soot Zimmer comforts her husband, who spent 14 days in a hospital after being beaned during a Dodgers minor-league game.

[UPI file photo]

[AP photo]
Zimmer says the criticism Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez took for their altercation in last season's ALCS was unwarranted: "An old man was dumb enough to go after him."
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Soot and Don Zimmer make Treasure Island their home.

TREASURE ISLAND - You might think this would be Don Zimmer's winter of discontent - considering the fall he had.

Not just the legendary one that sent him careening into the Fenway Park turf amid a heated Yankees-Red Sox American League Championship Series. In a most surreal baseball moment, replayed endlessly on TV, the old coach charged Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez, only to be shoved to the ground in humiliating fashion.

There also was the tumultuous fall out of favor with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. The Boss had criticized manager Joe Torre and his coaches earlier in the season. When Zimmer spoke up in support of Torre, he says he found himself as a constant target of the owner's wrath.

Feisty and proud at 72, Zimmer was fed up. So after the Yankees' dramatic defeat of the Red Sox to clinch the pennant, he revealed he would not return to the Yankees this season or work another minute for Steinbrenner.

Instead, following New York's six-game World Series loss to the Florida Marlins, Zimmer and wife Soot drove to their waterfront home on Treasure Island, where they have lived since Eisenhower was in the White House.

Just across the bay from the one man he never wants to see again, Tampa resident Steinbrenner.

Just across the bay from Legends Field, winter home of the Yankees. That's where Zimmer has started each season for the past eight years as Torre's bench coach and chief sounding board, helping remold the Yankees into baseball's most dominant team.

For two months, Zimmer wondered if this finally was the end of his long, lively baseball ride - from battling back after a beanball to the head nearly killed him as a minor leaguer in 1953, to sharing infield duties with such all-time greats as Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese on the old Brooklyn Dodgers in the '50s, to playing for the original '62 New York Mets, to managing the Red Sox to 99 wins in 1978 (one shy of the division title), to earning Manager of the Year honors in 1989 with the Chicago Cubs on a club dubbed "The Boys of Zimmer."

It looked as though it might be the first time in 55 years that a season would start without Zimmer in uniform.

Friends and family worried about him.

"I hate to say it, but my dad is the kind of guy who needs to die while he's still in his uniform," Tom Zimmer, a pro scout and St. Petersburg resident, said last week. "I'm afraid. I just don't know how he'll be."

On a recent morning over breakfast, Zimmer mused about it: "I've had the same phone number for 47 years, but nobody's called with any offers. So who knows, maybe I'm finally retired."

Two days ago, however, all that changed when his hometown Devil Rays came calling. Zim is back in, with a new job as pregame coach and senior adviser/goodwill ambassador, a perfect fit for the man who's one part Yogi, one part Yoda, every ounce baseball.

So much for any thoughts of a difficult winter.

The fact is, the world has been steadily weighing in on how "Popeye" popped off at a pair notorious for their bullying ways, Pedro and George - and he might soon be more popular than ever.

* * *

The first signs of his heightened celebrity status appeared late last month, when the New York Daily News and WFAN radio published the results of their New York Sports Awards.

By an overwhelming margin, even after leaving the Yankees, Zimmer was named New York Sports Personality of the Year, ahead of, among other names, George Steinbrenner.

He garnered support from big names such as governor George Pataki and actor Ben Gazzara. Starring Off-Broadway in Nobody Don't Like Yogi, Gazzara wrote: "He qualifies for his passion about the game - and for protecting his players."

"He's the man," wrote actor Charlie Sheen.

"I hope that I have the passion for my job at the age of 72 that Zim obviously has for his job," wrote New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer.

But the big exposure is yet to come. Feb. 1, during the telecast of Super Bowl XXXVIII, Zimmer will have a featured role in a high-profile commercial that plays off the Martinez tussle, though he would not comment on it.

After that, Zimmer's second autobiographical book in four years is due out for Father's Day, entitled The Zen of Zim, a look a baseball and the way it has changed through his half-century of experience.

"He has an amazing knack to relate to the younger players of today, even though he is old-school all the way," says Bill Madden, Zimmer's co-author, who covered the coach for years as national baseball columnist for the Daily News. "One of the amazing things, as far as how I've known him, is that he had a great relationship with all these young kids. (Yankees shortstop Derek) Jeter especially. They formed a very strong bond. ... It got to where Jeter was rubbing Zim's head or patting his stomach for good luck.

"And who would ever think that Zim and Darryl Strawberry would ever have anything in common? Yet around the clubhouse, they were tight. You would certainly expect the younger players to say, "Oh, that old fart, what does he know about anything?' But they all had tremendous respect for him."

That apparently didn't hold true for their owner, the one topic that still causes Zimmer to bristle.

"I didn't leave the Yankees. I left Steinbrenner," Zimmer says. "It's kind of sad, because it wasn't the right time to go. I wanted to stay another year, and Joe had another year to go on his contract. But Steinbrenner made it so miserable for me that I didn't want to take no more of it. He can bully people. He can belittle people, which he does. And it's just a matter of how much do you want to take. And I took all I wanted to."

The final straw came midway through the season, when he says he heard that Steinbrenner had referred to the coaches as "a bunch of a-h--."

"That was enough for me," he says. "This guy belittles people in his own meetings. ... He's never belittled me (in person) in a meeting because I'd get up and walk out."

Zimmer feels he was specifically targeted after Steinbrenner expressed displeasure at the team's performance: "He said, "This is Joe Torre's team.' It was always his team when we were winning. But now it's Joe Torre's team when we're losing. I made a statement that "I think that's unfair. I thought we were all in it together.' He took exception to that."

Soon after, on the road, Zimmer says friends called him to say they didn't see him sitting next to Torre. "I said, "What do you mean? I'm sitting next to him every day.' It turns out Steinbrenner ordered his YES Network to put the cameras on Joe, so you couldn't see me. And he told his (broadcasters) not to use my name on the show."

When announcer and ex-pitcher Jim Kaat found out after several games, says Zimmer, he insisted that the ban be lifted.

A bobblehead day was planned for Zimmer, but it was canceled.

"He never once ever called me Don," he says. "For 25 years, in front of anybody, it was always Zimmer. I'd be sitting at the horse track with three of my buddies, and it was "Hey, Zimmer.' Okay, I accepted that. That was his way. When I left New York, I said, he was the Boss for 25 years. Today he's Steinbrenner."

Attempts to contact Steinbrenner for comment were unsuccessful.

* * *

At 8:30 a.m. sharp, a familiar customer steps inside Tack and Cal's barbershop off Gulf Boulevard and the Treasure Island Causeway. He'll have the usual.

You might wonder why Don Zimmer would bother getting any of the tiny gray hairs clipped from what's left of his trademark crew cut. But every three weeks he shows up like clockwork. He likes the routine, likes sharing stories and banter.

"One thing about it," says Tack Estrada, watching as Cal Zinck performs the Zim trim honors, "neither one of us could screw this hair up."

"Hey, those strands get high," Zimmer protests.

He doesn't want any more hair-raising situations after the one that unfolded in Fenway on Oct. 11, before a stunned crowd of 34,209 and a national television audience.

The game was getting out of hand early.

In the top of the fourth inning, the teams came close to brawling after Martinez hit New York's Karim Garcia. In the bottom of the inning, players cleared the benches when Boston's Manny Ramirez reacted angrily at a high Roger Clemens pitch.

As players spilled onto the field, Zimmer headed toward the Boston dugout, where Martinez had retreated. Upon seeing Martinez, he lunged at the pitcher, who side-stepped Zimmer and shoved his head to the ground with two hands. Martinez backed away as Yankee players rushed to their coach.

In the stands, Soot Zimmer sat with her teenage granddaughter Whitney, an all-state softball and field hockey player from nearby Windham, N.H. Soot was trying to spot her husband on the crowded field when Whitney yelled, "Gran, Pedro just threw Poppy down!'

Whitney began to cry. "That made me all upset," recalls Soot. A player's wife behind Soot consoled her, then used her cell phone to get the blow-by-blow from her sister watching at home on TV, and relayed it all to Soot.

Players were confused as well.

"I saw a bald head on the ground and wasn't sure if it was Zim or (pitcher David Wells)," Clemens said later. "That's Zim. He's got more fire than half of those guys in the dugout, and that's why I love him."

"You love him because of his passion," Torre said. With a cut on his nose, and somewhat dazed, Zimmer returned to the bench next to Torre for the rest of the game. Later he was taken by ambulance to a Boston hospital for tests as a precaution.

The next day, he was back at the ballpark, issuing a tearful apology. He was fined $5,000 for his actions, with Martinez getting slapped with a $50,000 penalty.

"Pedro took some heat that he shouldn't have taken," Zimmer said on a bright, breezy morning. "They say, "Well, Pedro beat up an old man.' Pedro didn't beat up an old man. An old man was dumb enough to go after him.

"Pedro didn't do nothing wrong as far as I'm concerned, and doesn't owe me an apology. I went after him, and I apologized to everybody for what I did. And I left it go at that."

But why did he go after Martinez at all?

"I've seen Pedro put on his act, and I've seen him put on acts that were very unprofessional," he says. "I remember last year he put on an act in front of their dugout, calling (Yankee catcher Jorge) Posada big ears and flapping his ears at him, and pointing to his butt, because Posada is kind of big there.

"I'm a baseball guy, and I wouldn't allow it. I'd say, "Sit down!' So it was just a combination of things. I'm a firm believer of throwing inside, and in a pitcher having a little mean streak in him. I like that. But there's a difference in throwing inside and throwing at somebody's head.

"This has been going on for years, and it just built up in me, and here was this big struggle of a game, and I just come out of the dugout looking for Pedro. And I don't see him. And when he comes up out of the dugout very slowly, I see him and say, "I'm going after him.' I wish I hadn't, but I did."

"He knew what he was doing," says son Tom Zimmer. "He was just too old to make the move on the other guy. But what was Pedro supposed to do, let dad take a whack at him? He saw a Brahman bull charging at him and just sidestepped like a matador."

Still, Zimmer was amazed in the days following his public apology: He was deluged by hundreds of letters of support from around the country.

They still are being forwarded to his Treasure Island house, where walls and shelves are filled with endless baseball awards, memorabilia and huge scrapbooks (Soot has filled more than 60 since their marriage). The letters praise Zimmer's spirit, the way he faced up to his mistake.

The moment will be remembered, but doesn't seem likely to mar his legacy.

"No way, there's nothing embarrassing about what happened," says Peter Golenbock, St. Petersburg author of six books on the Yankees, including best-sellers Dynasty, The Bronx Zoo, Number 1 and Bats. "Pedro's a bully, and Zimmer is sort of a guy who goes, "If you attack my team, I'll be the first person over the foxhole to come after you.' I give him credit."

Longtime sports commentator Bob Costas, host of HBO's On The Record With Bob Costas, sees another dynamic at work:

"I think it's because he had so much goodwill within baseball going for him that he wasn't harshly criticized for that. If you just look at it objectively, it's hard to justify what Don did. He just had no business charging Pedro and loading up to throw a punch. And if he had been a less well-loved and less-respected character, he would have been criticized.

"But I think most people just put it in that context of, although it was a wrong-headed action, it came from some combination of the baseball fire that's still in him and his own feelings about guys beaning other players because of his own history."

To Costas, the sympathetic reaction wasn't surprising, given the age and physical mismatch.

"But especially given all the chips he has on his side of the table for decency," he says. "Not just that he doesn't have a lot of demerits against him; he's got a lifetime of positives."

Both for his baseball contributions, adds Costas, and his personality: "Don exudes tremendous warmth. He's always been extremely cordial, always seems happy to see you, always has a good word. I think everyone feels fondness for him."

Retired St. Petersburg Times columnist Hubert Mizell recalls Zimmer's own fondness for wagering at Derby Lane and Tampa Bay Downs through the years, and for his down-to-earth style.

"When he began making enough money to big-time you, he refused," Mizell says. "He was always the same guy. I remember one winter after he had managed the Red Sox into the playoffs, I asked Zim what the postseason money meant to him. He grinned and said, "A few more trips to the $50 window at Derby Lane, instead of betting the usual 10 bucks.' "

* * *

It's been his life, ever since he was an all-state shortstop at Western Hills High in Cincinnati.

Zimmer was an all-state quarterback, too, recruited by a young coach at the University of Kentucky, Bear Bryant.

But his heart was with the diamond. He even played softball all he could, joining an infield that featured his father and Pete Rose's dad. "Pete was there in diapers," Zimmer says.

Zimmer signed with Brooklyn as an amateur free agent in 1949. In 1951, he married hometown sweetheart Jean Carol Bauerle (nicknamed Soot as a child) in a homeplate ceremony in Elmira, N.Y., walking beneath a canopy of bats raised by teammates. Fast and strong, he was a hot prospect, tearing up the American Association with 23 homers and 63 RBIs by July 7, 1953.

Then his world went dark.

Always hugging the plate, Zimmer was struck by a Jim Kirk pitch in the head, fracturing his skull. He spent the next 14 days in the hospital semi-comatose.

When he came to, he had lost 44 pounds from his 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame. His speech was slurred, his vision blurred and four holes had been drilled in his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. (The popular idea that he has a metal plate in his head is incorrect. The holes are filled with a bone-like substance.) Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and general manager Buzzy Bavasi visited Zimmer's hospital bedside, and assured him he'd have a job for life with the club.

"I said, "Wait a minute, I'm 22, what the hell are you telling me?"' recalls Zimmer, who soon would give new meaning to the term head-strong.

He and Soot decided to stay with her parents, who had moved from Ohio to St. Petersburg. He forced himself through a grueling recoveryand developed a fondness for the beach. Zimmer rejoined the Dodgers in '54, played on the '55 World Series championship teamand in '56, he and Soot built their home on a Treasure Island inlet, with relatives from Cincinnati building on adjacent lots.

The scene was set for one of Zimmer's greatest sports accomplishments - not with the Dodgers, but with the City of St. Petersburg's softball league.

Hoping to stay in shape in the offseason, Zimmer called a rec department official inquiring about softball. "I said, "This is Don Zimmer, I play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and I'd like to get on one of these teams.' " The man said he had an ideaand called back an hour later.

He wanted Zimmer to play for a new team in the top division, the Largo Prison Camp squad. "I said, "you're s---- me, right?' " recalls Zimmer.

But he agreed, and he showed up one night at Woodlawn with Soot and their two young kids, Tom and Donna. "All of a sudden, here comes a yellow bus with a wire-mesh fence in the back, and here comes the warden, holding a sawed-off shotgun.' "

The warden had managed the team to an 0-2 start, so he asked Zimmer to take over as player-manager. "He said, "The only thing I do is promise them a pack of cigarettes if they win,' " says Zimmer. He quickly molded the rag-tag group into a scrappy unit that won six games in a row and made the playoffs, ticking off the warden over all the cigarettes he had to buy.

Zimmer had to leave the team when his baseball season started. But he received a letter that summer from the warden - an inmate playing the outfield purposely let a ball go through his legs, ran after it and kept running. "Well, there was a getaway car waiting for him and he escaped, and that was the end of that," Zimmer says.

But not for Zimmer. Locally, he later starred on arguably the best softball and basketball teams the city has ever seen, playing for George Mitchell Homes, once scoring 61 points in a basketball game.

In the majors, he overcame another pitch to the head in 1956, shattering his cheekbone and ending his season. From there, he played until 1965 for the Cubs, Mets (trivia note: Zimmer was the first player ever to don a Mets uniform, modeling it at old Miller Huggins Field in St. Petersburg), the Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Senators.

His career average was only .235, but Zimmer had left an indelible mark as a hustling, smart player - setting up his career as manager of the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs, and a long run as Torre's trusted bench coach. (He was even hit in the head by a ball in that capacity, when a foul shot by Chuck Knoblauch nailed Zimmer in the dugout in 1999 - prompting him to jokingly don an Army helmet with the Yankees insignia on it.)

"He's one of the great teachers I've ever run into," says retired player-coach-manager John Vukovich, who coached with Zimmer in Chicago. "A lot of people try to complicate things. But very few can simplify something like Don so you can learn it."

Fans constantly yell his name, or ask for an autograph or handshake. "He walks around Chicago, and people are on him like flies, same as in New England and the New York area," says son Tom.

His dad shrugs: "Not bad for a .235 hitter. I mean, I've had people say to me, geez, if you hadn't been hit in the head, what a hell of a player you'd have been. But I never looked at it that way. What's happened to me - to be able to play as long as I did and still be in the game as long as I've been, I'm very lucky."

Costas has his own take on Zimmer's impact.

"There's a phrase in baseball, when they talk about someone as a "baseball man,' which is different than saying a guy's a Hall of Famer, or great at what he does," he says. "But when somebody's a baseball man, it means they've been around the game all their life, they're steeped in the game, the game is what defines them.

"I can't think of anybody who's more of a baseball man than Don Zimmer."

DID YOU KNOW?

- Zimmer was Brooklyn's starting second baseman in the seventh game of the 1955 World Series, but manager Walter Alston put left-handed Sandy Amoros in leftfield as a late-inning replacement. Right-handed Jim Gilliam moved from left to second base, and Zimmer went to the bench. It was a brilliant move, because Amoros made the famous game-saving catch of Yogi Berra's slice down the leftfield line. "I've always said the Dodgers would never have won their only World Series in Brooklyn if Alston hadn't had the good sense to take me out of the game," Zimmer wrote in his book, Zim: A Life In Baseball.

- Zimmer got his nickname "Popeye" from Brooklyn catcher Roy Campanella. "I hit a home run in the upper deck at Ebbets Field. I wasn't a big guy, but I had some strength. Campanella had a real squeaky voice. He was fun, and as I come down the steps into the dugout, everybody's shaking my hand, you know, nice going, boom-boom-boom. The next time up, I hit one further in the upper deck. It was the middle of the summer, you know, you got your shirt up to here, cut off, and as I come in, I'm shaking guys' hands and as I'm shaking somebody's hand, Campie grabbed me by the (biceps) and says, "No wonder the little guy can hit it so far - he's got arms like Popeye." And to this day that stuck with me. Everybody thinks it's because I was chewing tobacco."

- While managing the Red Sox, Zimmer got another nickname he disliked: the Gerbil, from Boston pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee, whom he also disliked (the feeling was mutual).

- In 1978, Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent helped end Boston's dream of an ALCS berth with his one-game playoff home run. Zimmer had managed the Red Sox to 99 wins, only to fall short thanks to Dent. Five years later, when Zimmer became a Yankees coach, Dent was traded to Texas. Zimmer wound up renting Dent's house in New Jersey. "Just what I needed," Zimmer recalled in his book. "Everywhere in the place, on every wall, was all this memorabilia, all of it different pictures of that damn home run. I turned every one of 'em around and left 'em that way for the rest of my stay there."

- Zimmer was the first third baseman for the 1962 expansion Mets. His memory of the first Mets spring training in St. Petersburg: "George Weiss had to be a very smart man to hire Casey Stengel to manage his team. We went to Miller Huggins Field. You would have thought we just won four world championships. Media from all over the WORLD. And most of them there were because of Casey." Alas, Zimmer was 0-for-34 before getting his first hit and was batting .077 when he was dealt to the Reds. He wore No. 14 in Cincinnati before Pete Rose.

- While coaching with the 1983 Yankees, he noticed Royals slugger George Brett's bat had pine tar and, according to his book, told then-manager Billy Martin: "Look at all that pine tar on his bat. That's illegal." Brett's apparent two-run homer, giving the Royals a 5-4 lead with two outs in the ninth inning, was negated. This sparked baseball's memorable Pine Tar Controversy. American League President Lee MacPhail later overruled his umpires, stating the home run would stand and the game be resumed.

- One reason the city-league basketball team Zimmer played for was so good: It also featured several other major leaguers, such as Hal Lanier, Jim Kaat and Richie Ashburn, along with talented amateurs George Mitchell, Jimmy Mann and Ray McAllister. The George Mitchell Homes squad also was virtually unbeatable in softball from 1957-67.

- Compiled by Bruce Lowitt and Dave Scheiber.

ZIM THROUGH THE YEARS

Before 1949 season

Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as an amateur free agent.

July 7, 1953

Was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Jim Kirk, fracturing his skull and leaving him semi-comatose for two weeks, nearly ending his career.

1954-1957

Played for Brooklyn, hitting 15 homers in 1955 and played second base as Dodgers won the '55 World Series. In 1956, hit in the face by a pitch from the Reds' Hal Jeffcoat, fracturing his cheekbone and ending a promising season.

1958-59

Moved with the Dodgers to Los Angeles. In 1958, was the starting shortstop, achieving career highs of 17 HRs and 60 RBIs and a .262 batting average. Lost job to Maury Wills in 1959.

April 8, 1960

Traded by the Dodgers to the Chicago Cubs for Ron Perranoski, Johnny Goryl, Lee Handley (minors), and $25,000. High point: hit 13 homers and batted .262 in '61, making the All-Star team.

Oct. 10, 1961

Drafted by the New York Mets from the Chicago Cubs in the 1961 expansion draft. Played in only 14 games before manager Casey Stengel traded him.

May 7, 1962

Traded by the New York Mets to the Cincinnati Reds for Bob Miller and Cliff Cook.

Jan. 24, 1963

Traded by the Cincinnati Reds to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Scott Breeden. Played in only 22 games for Dodgers.

June 24, 1963

Purchased by the Washington Senators from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Hit 13 homers for the Senators in '63 and 12 in '64.

Nov. 19, 1965

Released by the Senators and went on to finish career in Japan.

1972-73

Managed San Diego Padres to records of 54-88 and 60-102.

1976-80

Managed Boston Red Sox to records of 42-34, 97-64, 99-64, 91-69 and 82-73.

1981-82

Managed Texas Rangers to records of 57-48 and 38-58.

1988-91

Managed Chicago Cubs to records of 77-85, 93-69, 77-85 and 18-19.

Tapped by Yankees manager Joe Torre to become his bench coach.

After Torre was diagnosed with prostate cancer in March, Zimmer managed the team while Torre underwent treatment.

Jan. 9, having left the Yankees after the World Series, Zimmer hired by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a senior adviser and pregame coach.

- Compiled from RetroSheet and Times wire sources.

[Last modified January 11, 2004, 01:33:09]

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