Jim Souhan analyzes the local sports scene and advises you to never take his betting advice. He likes old guitars and old music, never eats press box hot dogs, and can be heard on 1500ESPN at 2:05 p.m. weekdays, and Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon.

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RIP Don Zimmer. Here's my piece on him from Yankee days

Posted by: Jim Souhan under All-Stars and honors, Professional baseball Updated: June 5, 2014 - 9:09 AM

In 1999, I spent a few days in Kansas City doing a story on baseball lifer Don Zimmer, who passed away on Wednesday.

Here's the piece, from his days as the Yankees bench coach:

------

By Jim Souhan

Kansas City

His is the face of baseball, symmetrically seamed and smooth. His

has been a life of baseball, a Forrest Gumpian romp through the

game's history, his mementos ranging from a ball Babe Ruth signed

in 1947 to the ring he won in the House that Ruth Built 51 years

later.



   Don Zimmer earned Ruth's autograph when his American Legion team

won a national tournament. Zimmer, now the Yankees' interim manager

who will direct the defending World Series champions against the

Twins tonight to start a three-game series, played with that

precious artifact on the sandlots of hometown Cincinnati. He would

never again trifle with baseball history.



   "My wife keeps a scrapbook," he said this weekend, sitting in the

dugout in Kauffman Stadium. "We have a cupboard on the floor below

the trophy case. I would say that cupboard is probably as long as

from here to that wall," he says, pointing to the end of the

dugout, 10 feet away.



   "There are doors that open up here, here and here, and she's got

scrapbooks starting in 1948, when I was in high school, all the way

up 'til today. Somebody wants to see something about 1949, all they

have to do is pull it out."



   Zimmer's longevity reveals itself in a couple of his nicknames -

ranging from one of the original, crude, cartoons ("Popeye," given

to him as a young man for the size of his forearms) to a high-tech

special effect ("Yoda," for his posture and mentoring on the

Yankees' bench). His scrapbooks span the same timeline, from faded

black-and-white to florid color.



   "It's amazing what she's done, amazing," Zimmer said of his wife,

Jean, nicknamed "Soot." "I'll get my grand-kids in there and we'll

start looking at '55, '54, '56 when we wore those bloomers. Oh,

they start laughing. `Pops, you didn't really wear those kind of

uniforms, did you?' "



   Zimmer laughs, and those bright blue eyes that have seen

everything from Ruth's wizened grin to Jackie Robinson's glare to

Sandy Amoros' catch to Bucky Dent's homer to a Yankee team winning

125 games emerge from the cheeks and jowls.



   "That's all we wore," he says, laughing, the punch line more in

the delivery - leaning forward, eyes wide - than the line.



   Zimmer's baseball life has spanned from flannels to double-knits,

those tight-fitting pants that today reveal the outlines of a brace

wrapped around Zimmer's right knee. He's 68, and he might have both

knees replaced, which is why his days as interim manager might soon

end.



   Yankees owner George Steinbrenner begged him to run the team

while Zimmer's friend, Joe Torre, recovers from prostate cancer.

Zimmer has defiantly fought off Steinbrenner's meddling attempts,

which has been easy because he has nothing to fear - his knees hurt

so much a firing would be an act of mercy.



   He doesn't take the lineup to home plate or visit the mound to

change pitchers. All the miles he has traveled around the bases and

on buses, trains and planes, playing in a handful of countries and

for teams now defunct and forgotten, and suddenly a 90-foot stroll

is daunting.



   Wednesday, frustrated and pained, Zimmer told the Yankees players

he was "going home." Then Torre told him he couldn't return yet,

and Zimmer agreed to stay on indefinitely.



   When Torre returns, Zimmer will indeed "go home." He hasn't

committed to retirement or returning, only to spending time with

Soot and surgeons.



   "I've had a lot of people tell me, no big deal, I had it done,"

Zimmer said of knee replacement surgery. "I asked, `How long'd it

take?' Six months. I said, `That's nothing?' My days are numbered."



   Someone told Zimmer he might as well get both knees replaced.

"Very good," Zimmer said, nodding. "Put me to sleep and get it

done, and then I'll go dancing."



   And he laughs again, and runs a hand over the face that has

appeared in so many of baseball's climactic scenes, and sighs,

"What a life." It is neither complaint nor proclamation, just a

sigh from baseball's accidental tourist.



   .



   Hey Zimmah!



   Zimmer is sitting on the bench in Kansas City, and Yankees

shortstop Derek Jeter, 30 feet away, calls out "Zim-mah!"



   "You hear him call me that?" Zimmer says with a wink. "He's heard

me tell stories about Boston."



   Zimmer managed the Red Sox in 1978, when they blew a 14-game lead

to the Yankees, then forced the most infamous playoff in New

England history, when Dent's pop-fly homer cleared the Green Monster.



   "I'd take one step out of the dugout to go get the pitcher, and

it would be `You bleeping bum Zimmah!' " Zimmer said. " `You're a

bum! Pahk the cahr! You're still a bum!"



   Were those the toughest fans he has faced? "Well, it's very

easy," he said. "If there are 28,000 in the stands and 27,999 are

booing you, I guess that would be the spot."



   Was his wife the lone dissenter? "That's it," he said. "But

sometimes I think she was in there, too."



   He got booed again the first time he returned to Boston as the

Texas manager, on Opening Day at Fenway Park. Ralph Houk was the

Red Sox manager.



   "I bring out the lineup," he says. "My players are waiting

because they know I'm going to get booed. I take one step out . . .

`Booooo.' As soon as I got to home plate I took my hat off [he

doffs it]. That's when I said to the umpire, `Tough town. Here's

Mr. Ralph Houk, The General, war hero, and people are booing him."



   With Zimmer, there's not only a tongue-in-cheek story, there's

the story behind the story.



   He didn't just get victimized by Dent's homer - he later rented

Dent's house - and called Dent to tell him he was taking all the

pictures of his famous home run and turning them to face the walls.



   He not only played for perhaps the worst team in history - the

first-year Mets - he served as the bench coach for perhaps the best

- last year's Yankees.



   Zimmer didn't just marry his high school sweetheart, he held his

wedding on the baseball diamond at Elmira in 1951 and his wedding

party strolled under a calliope of crossed bats.



   He was in the dugout when Don Larsen pitched his perfect game,

and in the third base coaching box when Pete Rose, playing third

base for the Reds in the '75 World Series, said, "Zim, I don't know

who is going to win this game, but it might be the greatest game

I've ever played in," and then Carlton Fisk waived his home-run fair.



   He is the last member of the Dodgers who won the World Series in

Brooklyn who's still in uniform, just as he is the last of the

original Mets still active.



   He hasn't earned any money outside baseball his entire life,

except for the one social security check he cashed in '95, when he

thought he was retired. Then Torre called, and the two scripted two

World Series championships.



   His first major league at-bat? A triple off Curt Simmons. His

first American League at-bat? A two-run homer for the Washington

Senators. His first game with the Cubs? A homer off Don Drysdale at

the Los Angeles Coliseum.



   He can take credit for the only World Series the Brooklyn Dodgers

ever won, because Amoros replaced him in the lineup and made maybe

the most famous catch in Brooklyn history.



   One Opening Day at Wrigley, when Zimmer was managing the Cubs,

Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams frightened the faithful before securing

a save, just as he had the previous Opening Day.



   A writer and Zimmer were sitting in Zimmer's office when a TV

crew came in, asking about Deja Vu. Zimmer gave a perfunctory

answer, the crew left, and Zimmer asked the writer, "What's all

this about Ronja Vu? Why don't they ask me about the game?"



   .



   Search engine



   Zimmer doesn't follow baseball's mythical and omniscient "book."

What's the use of spending a life studying baseball, then using a

crib sheet on the test?



   He has hit-and -run with the bases loaded. He walked Kent Hrbek

with a one-run lead in the ninth and nobody on.



   "He was on a home run streak," Zimmer once said. "The next guy

was a good hitter - I forget who - but I didn't want Hrbek to tie

the score. The next guy hits a two-run homer . . . I'm fired."



   But the pitcher came through.



   "It took me a year more to get fired," he said.



   "He was the best manager I ever played for," said Red Sox manager

Jimy Williams, who played for Zimmer in the minors. "He's an

old-school guy - who can communicate."



   One time Yankees right fielder Paul O'Neill popped out, then

started tossing bats and helmets. Zimmer went to him, and O'Neill

yelled, "That's it, Zim, I quit, I'm going home."



   Zimmer put on his Yoda face and said, "That's good, we're both

from Cincinnati, I got a guy in the cement-block business who can

give you a job."



   When Zimmer's status was in doubt last week, O'Neill said, "What,

is Zimmer going home to take my job?"



   Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, a Chicago guy, never got to

know Zimmer well. "But my Mom did," Stelmaszek said. "She works at

the OTB."



   Ah, off-track betting - Zimmer's second-favorite type of betting,

right behind on-track betting. Once, when Zimmer was in a previous

incarnation as a Yankees coach, he told writers he had experienced

the best day of his life. He had visited three tracks in one day.



   He was asked how much money he had won, to make it the best day

ever. "Nothin'!" he said. "But I got to bet on 37 races!"



   In early April, the trumpeter Chuck Mangione appeared as a guest

on a Cubs broadcast.



   After he played that fanfare heard before every horse race,

Mangione said, "Every time I play that at Yankee Stadium, Zim

levitates off the bench."



   .



   Saintly days



   There's a remote chance Torre could replace Zimmer this week,

raising the possibility Zimmer's last days in uniform could come in

Minneapolis, 46 years after the Brooklyn Dodgers thought their

successor to Pee Wee Reese had played his last game in St. Paul.



   In 1953, Zimmer was playing for the St. Paul Saints, a Dodgers'

farm club, and leading the American Association with 23 homers when

he was beaned.



   He went into a coma for two weeks. His season was over.



   "And then the next year, I got to go back to St. Paul, because

the Dodgers have to see if I can play, if I'm afraid of the ball,"

Zimmer said. "Real quick I hit 17 homers, and I got called to the

Dodgers and stayed."



   In '56, he had his cheekbone fractured by Hal Jeffcoat in

Cincinnati. He missed the rest of that season, too. Two beanings,

and his promise as a future star faded. He once stole home 10 times

in a minor league season, but never got to recreate those heroics

in the majors.



   He outlasted Reese, but lost the shortstop job to Maury Wills.



   With more luck, Zimmer could have been a star, could have become

part of the Dodgers' pantheon with Campy, Hodges, Reese, Snider.



   Zimmer treats regrets the way he has treated tobacco chaws,

spitting them anywhere there aren't white shoes. This weekend, as

he limped about and told stories, someone asked Zimmer if he has

spent time thinking about his life in baseball.



   "Tremendous," he says, those eyes emerging again. "Tre-men-dous.

How lucky can a guy be, to be in the game all of his life?



   "It boils down to this: Anything and everything I have I owe to

baseball. I owe the game everything. I've had a great ride."



   .



   .



   Donald William Zimmer



   - Age: 68



   - Birthplace: Cincinnati



   - Residence: Treasure Island, Fla.



   - Married: Jean Carol Bauerle (nickname: Soot)



   - Teams played for: Brooklyn Dodgers, Los Angeles Dodgers

(twice), Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Washington

Senators, Toei Flyers (Japan)



   - Teams coached for: Yankees (three times), Boston (twice),

Giants, Rockies, Cubs, Expos



   - Managed: Padres, Red Sox, Rangers, Cubs, Yankees (interim)



   - Managerial record: 885-858



   - Notable: Stole home 10 times in one minor league season. . . .

Hit 23 homers for the St. Paul Saints in 1953 before being beaned,

and he hit 17 homers for the St. Paul Saints in 1954 before being

called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers. . . . Career .235 major league

hitter, as he so often reminds people.



   - Plans: "Going home," meaning he will go to his home in New

York, visit his grandchildren, probably have knee surgery and

recuperate. It might also mean retirement, but nobody knows for

sure but Zimmer - and maybe Soot.
 

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