Don Zimmer, the stubby, Popeye-muscled baseball lifer with the unforgettable jowls whose passion for the game endured through more than 60 years as a player, manager, coach and adviser, died Wednesday in Dunedin, Florida. He was 83.
His death was announced by the Tampa Bay Rays, a team he served recently as a senior adviser. Zimmer had surgery April 16 to repair a leaky heart valve, according to The Tampa Tribune.
Zimmer had been having kidney dialysis since May 2012 after falling into a diabetic coma at his home. But he continued to visit the Rays’ Tropicana Field when he could.
Zimmer was married on a baseball diamond in 1951 and it seemed he never left the ballfield.
He played the infield for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ only World Series championship team, he was an original member of the New York Mets and he was New York Yankees manager Joe Torre’s confidant as his bench coach on four World Series championship teams. He filled in as the Yankees manager for 36 games in 1999 when Torre was being treated for prostate cancer.
Zimmer managed the 1978 Boston Red Sox, who were overtaken by the Yankees for a division title on Bucky Dent’s playoff home run. He was the National League’s Manager of the Year in 1989 when he led the Chicago Cubs to a surprising division championship.
He played in the majors for 12 seasons, mostly as an infielder, and he managed for 13 seasons. He was an All-Star only once and he never managed a pennant-winner, but his intensity remained undimmed.
While a Yankees coach in October 2003, at 72, he charged Boston’s star pitcher Pedro Martinez during a playoff melee. Zimmer swung and missed, and then was thrown to the Fenway Park turf by Martinez. He soon apologized for sullying the game he loved.
Eight years later, Zimmer’s baseball juices were still flowing.
When Tampa Bay was trailing the Yankees, 7-0, in the sixth inning of their final game of the 2011 regular season, needing a victory for a wild-card playoff spot, Zimmer left the Rays’ bench to head home. Halfway there, he realized that he had not said goodbye to the players, turned his car around and got back to Tropicana Field in time to see the Rays rally for an 8-7 victory to overtake the Red Sox for a playoff berth.
Zimmer was still in the clubhouse at 2 a.m., when the celebration finally wound down.
“I’m 80 years old and I thought I was playing,’’ he told the Charlotte Sun of Port Charlotte, Florida. “This matches everything. It’s crazy, it’s beautiful, it’s baseball.’’
Zimmer’s bulging arm muscles on his 5-foot-9-inch frame (he was about 170 pounds in his playing years) brought him the enduring nickname Popeye when he played for the Dodger teams known as the Boys of Summer. His puffy face seemed like something out of a baseball trading card from the days when dugouts were awash in the juice from chewing tobacco.
Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee likened Zimmer to a gerbil for his bulging cheeks. Zimmer did not care much for that description, but he never took himself too seriously.
The night after he was struck in the face by a ball fouled into the Yankees dugout by Chuck Knoblauch during a 1999 playoff game, he wore an Army helmet. He allowed Derek Jeter to rub his head and his stomach for good luck before he came to the plate.
In an interview with Esquire in 2001, Zimmer talked about his bench-coach job: “I sit next to Torre on the bench. When he plays hit-and-run that works, I say, ‘Nice goin’, Skipper,’ and if it doesn’t work, I go down to the other end of the bench, get a drink and get out of his way.’’
But as Torre put it in his 1997 memoir “Chasing the Dream,’’ written with Tom Verducci: “Zim turned out to be the perfect bench coach. I ran everything past Zim. We had a great rapport and a lot of fun.’’
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Donald William Zimmer was born and raised in Cincinnati, where his father owned a wholesale fruit and vegetable company. He was signed out of high school as a shortstop by the Dodgers’ organization in 1949.
On Aug. 16, 1951, while playing for the Dodgers’ farm team at Elmira, New York, he married his high school sweetheart, the former Carol Jean Bauerle (known since childhood as Soot), at home plate under a canopy of crossed bats held by his teammates.
By the summer of 1953, Zimmer was playing for St. Paul in the American Association, a promotion to the Dodgers in sight. He had good speed and fine power.
But he nearly lost his life when he was beaned in a game in Columbus, Ohio. His suffered a fractured skull and fell into a coma. Doctors drilled holes in the sides of his head to relieve pressure on his brain.
Zimmer made his major league debut in 1954, filling in briefly for Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ future Hall of Fame shortstop and Zimmer’s boyhood idol. He hit 15 home runs in 88 games for the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series championship team, but he endured a second severe beaning in 1956 against the Cincinnati Reds. It left his cheekbone shattered and his eyesight damaged.
Zimmer remained with the Dodgers through their 1959 World Series championship season in Los Angeles, played two seasons for the Chicago Cubs, making his lone All-Star appearance in 1961, and then joined the expansion Mets as their third baseman in 1962. He was 0 for 34 at the plate to start the season before being traded to the Reds. He later played for the Dodgers once more and the Washington Senators, and then retired after the 1965 season with a .235 career batting average and 91 home runs.
Zimmer managed the San Diego Padres (1972-73), the Red Sox (1976-80), the Texas Rangers (1981-82) and the Cubs (1988-91), and then filled in for the recuperating Torre early in 1999.
He was Torre’s bench coach from 1996 to 2003 and then quit, maintaining that he had been treated abusively by the Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner. He joined Tampa Bay the next season, providing tips to players and doing community relations work in his advisory capacity.
In June 2012, the Rays gave away Zim Bear dolls to fans attending a night game with Detroit. The little bears, dressed in a Rays jersey and cap, featured the doll-maker’s best effort to duplicate Zimmer’s face.
“Somebody said they wouldn’t put it in their living room,’’ Zimmer said. “They’d scare somebody.’’
He is survived by his wife; a, son, Tom, a daughter, Donna, and four grandchildren, The Tribune said.
“All I’ve ever been is a simple baseball man, but it’s never ceased to amaze me how so many far more accomplished people I’ve met in this life wanted to be one, too,’’ he said in “The Zen of Zim,’’ (2004) written with Bill Madden. “What a game, this baseball!’’