Don Zimmer once said that he never worked a day in his life, which is funny when you consider how many jobs he had. But Zimmer was one of those guys to whom baseball wasn't work. He was a lifer. He spent 65 years in Major League Baseball as a player, manager and coach.
He was a part of 12 different organizations, some multiple times, some with different names and locales— for instance, he played for the Washington Senators then managed the team after it moved to Texas and became the Rangers. He had been an adviser for the Tampa Bay Rays since 2004.
Whenever one job ended, there was always someone offering Zimmer a new one, and that's quite a feat when you think about it. Baseball needed him just as much as he needed baseball. Baseball never sent him away, like it did so many others. He'd started in 1949 as an 18-year-old infielder, then went on to have a career that spanned eight decades. Even when Zimmer was hospitalized this spring after heart surgery, another man chose to wear his No. 66 Rays jersey on the field. That's respect.
Baseball is without Don Zimmer now. He died Wednesday at age 83. After his heart surgery in April, Zimmer remained hospitalized because of fibrosis in his lungs. His son, Tom Zimmer, told the Tampa Bay Times that his father went peacefully. "He just faded away."
In Major League Baseball, however, Zimmer will do no such thing. He'll be remembered as a treasure of the game. Commissioner Bud Selig called him one of the game's "most universally beloved figures." Jim Leyland said there's no better person in life than Zimmer. Pick someone in baseball, anyone, they're saying good things about Don Zimmer right now.
Zimmer won six World Series, a manager of the year award and was an All-Star twice. Zimmer played with Jackie Robinson and coached Derek Jeter, bookends of a baseball life that can't be duplicated.
Lovingly nicknamed "Popeye" in his early playing days and "Zim" later on, Zimmer was one of baseball's most colorful characters. He was involved in one of its more famous fights. He was turned into an odd-looking teddy bear as a ballpark giveaway. He was even mocked on "Saturday Night Live." How many baseball coaches can say that?
True story: Zimmer almost died on a baseball field once. He was hit in the head by a pitch in 1953, when he was in the minor leagues. He was in a coma for six days and eventually needed holes drilled in his skull. If that weren't enough to keep Zimmer off a baseball field, nothing would be.
Recently, when Zimmer had surgery, current Rays third base coach Tom Foley decided to wear Zimmer's No. 66 to honor him. The team hung a "Zim" banner in the press box too.
Those will be nothing compared to the outpouring of affection and stories and memories that will follow in the next few days.
And Zimmer — a true treasure of the game — deserves every bit of it.
Click on the photo below to see Don Zimmer through the years:
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