Devil Rays' Zimmer, 76, sparks youthful feelings

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

May 20, 2007|By MIKE BIANCHI | MIKE BIANCHI,Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. -- For a few magical minutes, he makes you forget about the surliness of Barry Bonds. And the selfishness of Roger Clemens.

He makes you forget about the arrogance of Scott Boras. And the absurdity of Bud Selig.

And players shilling themselves by injecting steroids. And killing themselves by driving drunk.

I wish everybody had a chance to do what I did Thursday afternoon. You want to feel good again about the national pastime? Sit in the dugout for a half-hour and talk baseball with Don Zimmer - the grand old man of the grand old game.

Said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon before the Devil Rays faced the Texas Rangers on Thursday night at Disney's Wide World of Sports: "It's kind of neat when you get a history lesson from somebody who was actually there."

Kind of neat?

More like unbelievably cool.

I felt like a kid again, back in the days before baseball lost me as a fan. Back in the days when I used to wake up in the morning and read the box scores over my Count Chocula and listen to Braves games at night and sometimes just lay on the bedroom floor, toss a baseball up toward the ceiling and daydream about what it must have been like to be there for Don Larsen's perfect game.

Now I'm sitting in the dugout with Zimmer, the 76-year-old senior baseball adviser and resident Yoda of the Devil Rays. He was actually there, in the opposing dugout, when Larsen pitched the perfect game. He was a teammate of Jackie Robinson. He played for the Dodgers - in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles. He was the third-base coach for the Boston Red Sox when Carlton Fisk hit his famous home run in the '75 Series. He was the manager of the Red Sox when Bucky Dent hit his famous home run in the '78 division tiebreaker.

As he's telling these fascinating stories from all those years ago, you have an urge to blurt out: "Hey, Zim, weren't you at Eli Phinney's cow pasture when Abner Doubleday invented the game?"

"When you've been around as long as I have, you see a lot of things," Zimmer said. "I've been lucky, real lucky, to have been a part of this game for so long."

Is he a part of the game or is the game a part of Zimmer? This is a guy who wears his heart not on his sleeve but on his back. His uniform number is 59 - for the 59 years he's been in baseball. He's been wed at the ballpark-and nearly died at the ballpark.

He married his high-school sweetheart, Jean, at home plate of a minor-league stadium in Elmira, N.Y.

"That was 55 years ago," he said, "and she's still putting up with me."

He almost died as a minor-leaguer when a beanball hit him in the head and fractured his skull.

"I woke up 13 days later and thought it was the next morning," Zimmer said.

Through it all, the baseball sage has endured. What other septuagenarian do you know who has walked out on George Steinbrenner ("Life's too short to be treated the way Steinbrenner treats people.") and tried to take out Pedro Martinez ("When he pushed me down, I tried to get up and pulled a groin. I was laid up for a month.")?

Zimmer laughs and starts telling another story - the one about playing winter ball in Cuba before Fidel Castro. Or maybe it was the one about being a utility shortstop for the Dodgers and playing alongside a second baseman named Jackie Robinson.

He leans on a bat and tugs on his cap.

You have a sudden craving for a bowl of Count Chocula.

Mike Bianchi writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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