Bodley: Baseball lucky to have Zimmer
Coach enters 62nd year in uniform with ideas for future
TREASURE ISLAND, Fla. -- Sometime next month, Don Zimmer will pull on a Tampa Bay Rays uniform. It will be the 62nd consecutive year he's worn a baseball uniform, his 52nd in the Major Leagues.
"Every time, every year I put the uniform on, it's special," Zimmer said a few nights ago over dinner at The Pearl, one of his favorite Treasure Island haunts. "You've got to have special people that keep bringing me back. And that's what I have with the Rays."
He added that for the past 10 years, "In September, people ask, 'Are you coming back next year?' I never tell them yes; I say, 'It takes two to tango,' and I have to be asked."
Luckily for the Rays and MLB, Zimmer, who turned 79 on Sunday, will be back again in 2010 as the team's senior baseball advisor.
Spend a few hours with this icon and your head spins from all the baseball knowledge he spews while gnawing Chilean sea bass.
Too bad Bud Selig didn't include Zimmer on his Special Committee for On-Field Matters. The former player, manager, coach, etc., would have been a natural.
Even though he's not a member, he is aware of the issues the group faces because he talks daily on the phone with one of his closest buddies, Jim Leyland. The Detroit skipper is one of four managers on the committee, which held its first meeting Jan. 14 in Arizona.
"I have opinions, but I certainly don't think it's my place to speak out against certain issues," Zimmer said. "I'm not qualified to know what should be changed. But, yes, the game has changed."
Zimmer will be in New York on Saturday to receive the Baseball Writers' Association of America's Long and Meritorious Service Award.
Zimmer, who is entering his seventh season with the Rays after cutting ties with the Yankees in 2003, says he's embarrassed to receive the award.
"I just hope the tux I ordered fits," he said, making light of the occasion. "Seriously, when Bill Madden of the New York Daily News called to inform me of my selection, I asked him who's received this award before. He said, 'Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, among others.' I paused a moment and said, 'Well, I fit right in with them. I hit .235!'"
Laughing and prompting a frown from Soot Zimmer, his wife of nearly 59 years, Don blurted out: "With a .235 hitter up on that dais, people are going to say, 'What the hell is he doing here?' And I don't know what I'll tell 'em."
There will be no one on the prestigious dais with as much knowledge as what is stored inside Zimmer, who played most of his career with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, with managerial stops in San Diego, Boston, Texas and Chicago (with the Cubs).
The Rays are the ninth Major League team for which he has worn a uniform as a manager or coach.
Working for Tampa Bay has been somewhat of a dream job for Zimmer, because for 50 years, he and Soot have made their home in the area.
In a few weeks, they'll pack up and move south to Port Charlotte, Fla., where the Rays hold Spring Training.
Returning to New York and receiving this award will be another important step for Zimmer, who spent eight years (1996-2003) as bench coach under the Yankees' then-manager Joe Torre. That was in the period when the Yanks won the World Series four out of five years and went to the playoffs every October.
Zimmer had a warm relationship with the Yankees and owner George Steinbrenner, but it soured during the 2003 season. The reason remains a mystery to Zimmer, who walked away and was almost immediately hired by the Rays.
But last July 19, the Yankees unexpectedly invited him back for Old-Timers' Day, one of the most memorable moments of his storied career.
He almost was overcome by emotion when he received the loudest and longest ovation of all the Old-Timers on the field.
"Going back to the Old-Timers' Day made up for a lot" of the rift with Steinbrenner, Soot Zimmer said. "The ovation went on and on. I was up in the stands crying, and he was down on the field crying."
Don Zimmer added: "George and I were friends for 25 years. It's sad it wound up the way it did, but it was time to leave. I gave it a lot of thought. Joe Torre didn't think I was going, but I made the right decision."
If Zimmer were on Selig's special committee, one thing he would recommend is the elimination of the designated hitter in the American League. That's one of the subjects the group is discussing.
"I've always been surprised they have the DH in one league and not the other," he said. "I've managed with it and without it. I prefer managing without it. I believe there's more to making moves without it. The game is better.
"Not having it keeps you on your toes a little bit more. You worry when the bases are loaded and the pitcher is coming up. You have to use a pinch-hitter and have a pitcher ready."
Zimmer grew up in the Dodgers system and learned baseball from the ground up in an organization that was renowned for teaching and stressing fundamentals.
It is that expertise that Zimmer brings to the Rays and why he's so valuable to them and any team he works for. To him, there's only one way to play the game. The players know if they fail to execute, they're subject to the wrath of Zimmer.
"I can't wait to get to the ballpark every day," he said, with enthusiasm in his voice. "I've been doing it a lot of years, and it never gets old. Baseball is so important to me. I don't ever want to leave it."
Pausing, glancing at his wife, he mused: "People say I've touched a lot of lives, but I've been touched by a lot of people, too."
Zimmer is correct, but put the emphasis on the former.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.