Don Zimmer, a current Tampa Bay Rays advisor who has spent the last six decades working in professional baseball as a player and coach, died Wednesday after a nearly two-month hospital stay. He was 83.
Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times first reported Zimmer's passing after speaking with his son Tom:
Zimmer, who has been working with the Rays in a limited-time capacity since 2004, underwent heart surgery in April to fix a leaky valve. Initially expected to only need a couple days of recovery before going home, his body never recouped properly. Topkin reported in late April that Zimmer needed a ventilator to breathe and his progress was "slow" to do so on his own.
A baseball lifer, Zimmer goes down as one of the most indelible faces in MLB history. Working largely as a reserve infielder, he played 12 big league seasons, starting with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. That call-up would start a 60-year relationship with America's pastime, featuring stops at nearly every corner of the United States.
Commissioner Bud Selig released a statement shortly after hearing the news via Mark Feinsand of the NY Daily News:
"Like everyone in Major League Baseball, I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend Don Zimmer, one of our game's most universally beloved figures. A memorable contributor to Baseball for more than 60 years, Don was the kind of person you could only find in the National Pastime.
"As a player, Don experienced the joys of the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers and the struggles of the '62 Mets. In his managerial and coaching career, this unique baseball man led the Cubs to a division crown and then, at his good friend Joe Torre's loyal side, helped usher in a new era in the fabled history of the Yankees.
"On behalf of Major League Baseball and the many Clubs that 'Popeye' served in a distinguished Baseball life, I extend my deepest condolences to Don's family, friends and his many throughout our game."
Zimmer played for the Dodgers, Cubs, Mets, Reds and Washington Senators. Working all over the diamond depending on need, Zimmer enjoyed limited individual success as a player. He made the 1961 All-Star Game but played in over 100 games just four times in his career. He had a career .235 batting average and hit 91 career home runs, with his playing days largely defined by his unquestioned work ethic and willingness to fill whatever role was needed.
Those traits served Zimmer well in his legendary coaching career.
Starting first in the minor leagues, Zimmer again worked his way up through the system before earning a gig with the Montreal Expos in 1971. He would become a fixture on a major league bench over the next three-plus decades, where he'd become one of the best-traveled coaches in history.
“It’s been my life, and I’ve been so lucky,” Zimmer said in 2013, per Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune. “You know, Lou Gehrig says, ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.’ Well, if he’s the luckiest man in the world, I’m the second luckiest.”
Zimmer coached or managed nine different franchises, including three different stints with the Yankees and two stops with the Red Sox. Not even the fiercest rivalry in baseball could keep someone as talented as him off a major league bench.
His five-year stint (1976-80) in Boston served as his greatest success as a manager. Zimmer's teams never made the playoffs, but they were better than .500 every season and he had two campaigns with a .600 winning percentage. It's possible he would have had a much longer managerial career had the wild card been in play then.
Zimmer's only playoff appearance as a manager came in 1989 with the Cubs, a season in which he won the Manager of the Year award. Chicago lost to the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. Overall, Zimmer went 885-858 as the man in charge with the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs each giving him a shot.
Where Zimmer found his true calling was being the second in command.
Joe Torre tabbed him for his third and final stint in New York in 1996, and the two became one of the most successful clubhouse pairings of the modern era. Torre and Zimmer helped guide the Yankees to four World Series titles, a dynasty that helped end two decades of futility in the Bronx.
Zimmer also had his greatest moment of infamy in New York. During a bench-clearing brawl between the Yankees and Red Sox in 2003, Zimmer charged at Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez, who promptly threw him to the ground. While many criticized Martinez for his part in the fight, it was a quintessential Zimmer moment. He loved the game to the point where, even at an advanced age, he'd start a fight he had no chance to win in order to protect his players.
Torre is one of the infinite members of baseball royalty who owe gratitude to Zimmer. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Carl Yastrzemski and many others had their lives touched by this great man.
The game and sports in general will be worse without him.
Don Zimmer is survived by his wife Jean, two children (Tom and Donna) and four grandchildren.
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