When I was younger I thought Don Zimmer was a joke. The New York Mets spent $100,000 for him in 1962 money and he started the season a record 0 for 34. After he finally got a couple of hits, they traded him to the Reds. In the 1970s he managed the woeful San Diego Padres and the hated (for me) Boston Red Sox. He managed the Sox when they lost the 1978 playoff game. We all called him “The Gerbil” and couldn’t understand why any major league team would hire him.
Yet teams did, for over 60 years, until he finally left the game for good this week. What I didn’t know about Don Zimmer while I was growing up, because he was too modest to say it, was how tough Zim was. He almost died after being hit in the head while playing in the minors, yet recovered well enough to contribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers first-ever World Series victory. He might have inherited Pee Wee Reese‘s job at short, except for another beaning that nearly ended his career. He came back, played for another pennant winner, and even made an All-Star team. Despite managing the terrible Padres, he won more baseball games than he lost as a manager. He wanted a life in professional baseball and he made one. Under Joe Torre he coached some of the most successful Yankee teams of all time. His advice over the last few years helped the Tampa Bay Rays achieve an impressive winning record.
Zim’s life taught us that you can, in fact, have the life you imagine if you believe in yourself, work hard, and never give up. That you can be tough, and at the same time modest. Most importantly, I learned from Zim in my later life to never accept other’s judgements blindly. Don Zimmer was more than just a great baseball man. He was a great man. Everyone in the Rays organization, every fan, and every one of the countless people he’s touched will miss him.