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Zimmer hopes fun is short-lived


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 1999

ST. PETERSBURG -- Eleven days ago, Don Zimmer was put in charge of the best team in baseball. Eight days later, he was given permission to enjoy it.

* * *

It was Thursday afternoon when Zimmer's wife Soot got a call at their Treasure Island home from Joe Torre's wife, Ali, in St. Louis. She said Torre's surgery for prostate cancer was a success and his chances for a full recovery were deemed excellent.

"After that," Zimmer said, "it got a little more fun."

From the time he took over as interim manager, Zimmer insisted he was merely carrying out Torre's will. It turned out he would even await word from Torre's side before letting himself enjoy the moment.

It's an odd situation Zimmer finds himself in. After a lifetime in the game, he has been given the team of a lifetime. But his tenure has no timetable, only a ticking clock.

And he knows that with a team that does nothing but win, he can only lose. When asked whether these games would go on his managerial record or Torre's, Zimmer laughed.

"If we win, they go on his," he said. "If we lose, they go on mine."

But even as he sits in the dugout at Al Lang Field joking about his thankless task, Zimmer is appreciative of the chance he has been given.

A little more than three years ago, he was contemplating his first summer out of the game since the late 1940s. He had left a coaching job in Colorado and was home in Pinellas County watching his grandsons play youth baseball.

He said he recently had cashed his first social security check when he got a call from Torre. He figured Torre was going to ask his advice about a coaching hire. Instead, Torre asked Zimmer to join him in New York as his bench coach.

That was three summers and two World Series titles ago. Zimmer is entering his 51st season in a pro uniform, a nearly unparalleled tenure.

He managed four teams in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Given a chance at age 68 to hold a lineup card once again, Zimmer is anxiously waiting for things to return to normal.

"I wish he was back tomorrow," Zimmer said. "In the back of my mind, I know it's not my team. We're trying to do things for Joe. I don't even know how to explain it. It's just not the same. That's all I can say."

BLACK AND BLUE DIVISION: The most dangerous place in baseball is the NL Central. In the past month, the Astros lost Moises Alou to a knee injury and the Cubs lost Kerry Wood to an elbow injury, and Reds fans are getting concerned about Denny Neagle's sore shoulder. The Cardinals also had a bit of bad news when Matt Morris felt pain in his forearm after his spring debut.

"Our division, for some reason, seems to be the hard-luck division this year," Cubs GM Ed Lynch said. "Houston lost Moises Alou. We lost Kerry. I see Denny Neagle has had some problems, and the Cardinals have had concerns with injuries. There is no sympathy asked for and none given. We are not going to feel sorry for ourselves because no one feels sorry for us."

STAY THE COURSE: Already the names are flying around Atlanta, now that closer Kerry Ligtenberg is out with an elbow injury. Minnesota's Rick Aguilera, Kansas City's Jeff Montgomery and Tampa Bay's Roberto Hernandez have been mentioned as possibilities. Aguilera led the AL in blown saves last season, Montgomery's salary goes from $2.5-million to $4-million if he's traded and Hernandez has about $18-million remaining on his long-term contract. In other words, Atlanta will give John Rocker and Mark Wohlers every chance to earn the job.

THROWING HIS WEIGHT AROUND: Everyone knows Mo Vaughn is a power hitter. He's also a power negotiator. Remodeled Edison Field allowed the fewest home runs of any AL park last season, and Vaughn let it be known during contract negotiations that he was concerned about it. Lo and behold, the Angels announced plans to move the fences in center and left-center in by nine feet.

A SECOND LOOK: The Brewers may have gotten a break when the Cardinals released Carlos Baerga. Milwaukee has been trying to deal All-Star 2B Fernando Vina for several months and now has a potential suitor in St. Louis. "They said they were interested (in Vina) and I said we'd take a look at their people," Brewers GM Sal Bando said.

LOOKING AHEAD: Tony Gwynn, who began his career in San Diego in 1982, has acknowledged that he would consider moving to the American League as a DH once his contract expires with the Padres in 2000. Padres owner John Moores is thinking otherwise. "I would hope that Tony is here to open the new ballpark in 2002," Moores says. "I've told Tony that a number of times. But he rolls his eyes and laughs. If he wants to have 3,500 hits, I think he'd rather be a role player in the National League than a DH in the American League. And if he stays in the National League, he's a Padre." Gwynn would turn 42 in 2002.

CROWD CONTROL: When the Yankees played the Twins on Wednesday at Fort Myers, 7,744 showed up. That was better than five announced crowds at the Metrodome last year.

LINE OF THE WEEK: New Toronto manager Jim Fregosi was asked if he would consider bringing back his closer in Philadelphia, Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams. "No," he said. "I don't want to take up smoking again."
-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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