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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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2007 MLB Preview
Memories of a baseball lifer
By JOANNE KORTH
Published April 1, 2007
Fan favorite Don Zimmer begins his 59th year in baseball, 49th in the major leagues as a player, coach or manager. Entering his fourth season as senior baseball adviser with the Rays, the 76-year-old recently sat in the dugout with Times staff writer Joanne Korth to discuss his fondest memory, having a new home address for the first time in 50 years, the nickname Popeye, electronic gadgets, watching his granddaughter play softball and other assorted topics.
Do you have a favorite baseball memory?
If I had to pick out one, it would be 1989, when I managed the Cubs and everybody picked us to finish last. In spring training we were terrible. Jim Frey, my boss and general manager, asked me if there was any way we could win 81 games. I said, "Jimmy, if we ever win 81 games with this club we've got, you and I will dance down Michigan Avenue arm-in-arm." I had a bunch of young guys and they just played their rear ends off. ... We clinched the division title in Montreal, which is my biggest thrill in 59 years of baseball. Fans in Chicago have never forgotten it.
You and your wife, Soot, lived in the same house in Treasure Island for 51 years until six months ago, when you moved to a condo in Seminole. Do you know your new address and phone number?
Phone number, yes. I don't think I could tell you my address yet.
Where did the nickname "Popeye" come from?
I was playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in July when everyone had on short-sleeve shirts. In those days, when you hit a home run there were no high-fives and low-fives. You shook hands and that was it. I hit a home run, and the next time up in the same game, I hit one further in the upper deck and everybody was shaking my hand. Roy Campanella had a real squeaky voice and Campanella grabbed me by the biceps and squealed, "No wonder he can hit the ball so far, he's got arms like Popeye." Any Dodger today that I run into, it's always Popeye.
You played in Japan in 1966. What was that like?
Actually, I wasn't crazy about it at that time. I'd have hit somebody over the head if I could get a McDonald's hamburger. It was toward the end of my career, and early in the season I hit a foul ball off my toe and broke my toe. Then I hurt my arm and I continued to play with my shoe cut out, trying to throw the ball half underhanded to get it to first base. It took the fun out of it. I could no longer play. The Japanese people offered me a contract to come back the next year and I told them I'd be cheating you and myself. And I left to come home.
Do you rotate wearing your six World Series rings?
No, I only wear one. I wear the last one we won with the Yankees, the 2000 one, when we beat the Mets. I wear it every day.
You played almost every infield position, including catcher. How did that happen?
I was a young player when I got to the Brooklyn Dodgers and they had a great team. I had to learn how to play third, short and second to stay in the big leagues. Then I played with Gil Hodges for five years and later he became the manager of the Washington Senators and I got traded to the Senators. Last day of the season in 1964, we're playing in Boston on a Sunday and we had three catchers that Gil was not happy with. They kept dropping strikes. So he said to me, "Can you catch?" I'm 35 years old. I said, "Yeah, I can catch." I wanted to find a way to stay in the big leagues a couple more years. I still had a great arm. Well, I get out there and threw the ball down to second and I'm giving the signs and the third-base coach from the Red Sox is yelling, "Zim! Zim!" I looked down at him. He said, "You don't have your chest protector on." So I came in, got my chest protector on and I finished the game.
If you were MLB commissioner for a day, what one thing would you change?
Fraternizing. You're supposed to be beating the other team, and every time you look up there's six players from each side all loving each other at second base before the game. I don't think that's good for fans to see. You're supposed to be competing. Used to be, we got fined $50. There's time for that after the game.
What's the last electronic gadget you bought?
Well, I got a new cell phone because I left mine out in a storm.
Do you text message?
I don't know what that means. I have people say to me, "Can I text you?" I say, "Text what?" If people want to talk to me, they have to call me.
Your granddaughter, Whitney, plays softball at UMass. Which is more nerve-wracking for you, watching her play or managing in the postseason?
Last year, she was a freshman and she had such a great year. She broke records. And this year she's struggling. When I see her struggling like she is, knowing how bad she wants to get a hit, it kills me. I'd rather be managing a 1-1 game in the 17th inning.
Does anyone have a better job than you?
I would say if they do, I might dispute it. Nobody is luckier than me. I was a very mediocre player, hit .235 for life, and here I am today doing something I loved to do when I was 12 years old.