THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Zimmer the ultimate common denominator

Don Zimmer will be in his customary attire - a baseball uniform - during the Rays' BP. Don Zimmer will be in his customary attire - a baseball uniform - during the Rays' BP. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / October 8, 2008
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He's always there in the Red Sox October photos - shaking hands with Carlton Fisk as Fisk rounds third after the midnight moonshot off the left-field foul pole; standing in the dugout hanging his head when Bucky Dent hits the pop-fly homer into the net; sprawled face-down on the Fenway grass after getting shucked to the ground by Pedro Martínez.

He is the Leonard Zelig of Boston baseball, and therefore, it comes as no surprise that Don Zimmer will be in uniform, on the field, when the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays take batting practice Friday at Tropicana Field before the first game of the American League Championship Series.

In Tampa, Zim wears No. 60, in honor of his 60 years in professional baseball. He is "senior adviser" of the Tampa Bay Rays (he doesn't stay in uniform during the games) and he thinks his guys have a good shot against the Red Sox.

"Of course, no one gives us a chance," he said yesterday, speaking over the phone from Florida. "I pick up the paper and I listen to talk shows and the Dodgers and Red Sox are already going to play in the World Series."

This is Zelig Zim's seventh decade in professional baseball. He met Babe Ruth when his American Legion team won a national championship in 1947. He was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949 and he was there when Jackie Robinson stole home in the 1955 World Series. He was a member of Casey Stengel's original Amazin' Mets in 1962 and he managed the Chicago Cubs to a division title in 1989. He was in Yankee Stadium for Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956 and again for perfect games hurled by David Wells ('98) and David Cone ('99).

But he can't get away from Boston, not when it comes to October. Zim was the Sox third base coach, yelling, "No, no, no," when Denny Doyle (thinking he heard "Go, go, go") tried to score on a bases-loaded shallow fly to George Foster in the greatest World Series game of them all. Zim was skipper of the 1978 Red Sox, who won 99 games, only to be foiled by Mr. B.F. Dent. And Zim was Joe Torre's trusty bench coach when the Yankees and Sox got into one of their famous dust-ups in the 2003 ALCS.

Zimmer was embarrassed after he charged Pedro in the heat of the moment, but could you blame him? Zim was almost killed by a beanball in 1956 and he saw Pedro threaten Jorge Posada by pointing to his head. Zim got the last laugh in that series. He was on the bench with Torre when Aaron Boone took Tim Wakefield over the wall in Yankee Stadium.

The Red Sox-Yankees dynamic has changed significantly since that series. Today's Sox are all about winning and clutch performance. It was a lot different when Zimmer managed in Boston. He won more than 90 games in each of his three full seasons, but he was routinely ridiculed by his own players (Bill Lee comes to mind) and a young radio talent named Glenn Ordway (I wonder whatever happened to him). Zim remembers nights when his daughter would be in tears as he drove home from the ballpark.

What does he remember most about his Boston managerial experience?

"Naturally, you've got to think of Bucky Dent's home run," he said. "A one-game playoff. I think that's what you would have to think of." (Zimmer later rented Dent's apartment and had to look at a photo of the homer every night before turning out the lights.) "But I know how many games we won. In a stretch of three years, we won 91, 97, and 99 games - we won just enough games to get fired. That's the way our game is."

These days, it's all good for Zimmer in Boston. His daughter lives in New Hampshire and his granddaughter, Whitney Mollica, is a softball player for the University of Massachusetts. He's looking forward to seeing them when the ALCS returns to Fenway Park.

"They're all excited," he said. "My granddaughter is in her senior year at UMass. They've got a good program. They're in their fall ball thing now, but I think they've got Monday off, so she'll get to see the Monday game for sure.

"The Red Sox have got outstanding pitching. Josh Beckett is not up to par, but he's a top-notch pitcher, and the lefthander [Jon Lester] is damn near getting in a class of his own. They got a good ball club, that's all. It should be a heck of a series as far as I look at it.

"We think we can win. That's the way our club is right now. Why wouldn't you think you can win when you win 97 games? All year everybody thought it was luck. Well, how the hell can it be luck when you win 97 games? That luck part is out of it.

"All year long, people have been saying we're going to fold. We lost seven games in a row and people said, 'That's it. It's all over.' We lost [Carl] Crawford and [Evan] Longoria and they said we were finished, and now we're going to play the way we're supposed to play.

"This is a pretty good team. Pitching has been our strong point. We send out five pretty good starters, and the bullpen has done a good job."

If the Rays make it to the World Series against the Dodgers, Zim will have more stories to tell. His relationship with Torre runs deep.

"I still talk to Joe now and then," he said. "It's unbelievable. The Yanks are not there and Joe Torre is. That's kind of a fun situation you wouldn't have thought of three years ago.

"Let me tell you, I've been in so many organizations with so many teams. I can go back to the 1989 Chicago Cubs, the '55 Dodgers. I have just been one lucky human being in the right place at a lot of times, and that's about the best way I can put it."

Red Sox. Rays. Dodgers. Doesn't matter. Zimmer makes the connections. His is a baseball life. It's October and he's in uniform for the playoffs.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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