Wednesday, June 4, 2014

RIP Zim, We'll Miss Ya

Don Zimmer had so many jobs in baseball, he became famous, sometimes infamous, for so many things. His family and his baseball families suffered a loss today when the colorful 83-year old died two months after having heart surgery.

Zimmer's first personna was that of a player in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. He was a member of the '55 "Bums" that finally beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. He nearly died though before he put together a 12-year career, primarily as a reserve. Playing for St. Paul in 1953, Zimmer lost sight of a pitch and leaned right into the ball.

In the days before helmets, Zimmer suffered a devastating head injury. He was unconscious for nearly two week and had to have holes drilled in his head to relieve the pressure. The 170 pound infielder dropped down to 124 pounds and was told he would never play a game. The doctors didn't know just how tough Zim was.

He went with the Dodgers when they moved to Los Angeles and picked up another World Series ring with the 1959 team. He bounced around after that. Taken by the Mets in the expansion draft in 1961, Zimmer had the misfortune of playing on the sad sack Mets squad that lost 120 games in 1962. Zimmer retired from MLB after the 1965 season with stops in Cincinnati, briefly back with the Dodgers, and three years in Washington. There was one more season in professional baseball for Zimmer though, as a member of the 1966 Toei Flyers in the Nippon Professional Baseball League.

Baseball was still in Popeye's blood even though he was no longer a player. He got his first Major League managerial job with the San Diego Padres in 1972 after Preston Gomez was fired 11 games into the season. The Padres were 114 and 190 under Zimmer, who was fired after the 1973 season. The next stop was in Boston to replace Darrell Johnson after 86 games into the 1976 season. In 1978, the Red Sox built up a 14.5 game lead over the New York Yankees. But the Yankees began a Summer surge while the Red Sox swooned. A 163rd game was needed to decide the AL East winner and Bucky Dent ruined Zimmer's and Boston's dreams. Zimmer, unfairly, became the scapegoat for the blown division lead.

Zimmer was let go by Boston near the end of the 1980 season, but got a job the following year as the Texas Rangers manager. He was fired 96 games into the 1982 season. Zimmer's final managerial stint came as the skipper of the Chicago Cubs from 1988 into 1991. The 1989 team won 93 games, but lost in the NLCS to San Francisco in five games.

Zimmer got a new lease on his baseball life when Joe Torre, barely an acquaintance at the time, asked him to be his bench coach for his new gig as the New York Yankees manager. Zim became a lovable character during his time in New York, whether it was from Derek Jeter rubbing his head for luck, donning an army helmet after a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball hit him, taking on George Steinbrenner, or charging Pedro Martinez during a bench clearing brawl.

Zimmer stayed closer to his home in Florida the last 11 years as a senior advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays. Baseball wasn't his dearest family though. That distinction belonged to his wife Jean, better known as "Soot", who he met in the 10th grade. The couple was married for 63 years and had two children, a son, Tom, and a daughter, Donna, who gave them four grandchildren.

Zim's health began to deteriorate and he suffered a stroke in 2008. This past April he endured surgery to repair a leaky heart valve, but never fully recovered. My thoughts, prayers, and condolences go out to his family and friends. Don Zimmer, one of a kind.

Updated 6/5

Derek Jeter reflects back on Zim

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