Monday, June 9, 2008

Catching Up With Don Zimmer, Part I

Don Zimmer, a senior baseball advisor with the Tampa Bay Rays, is one of the true legends of the game. Zimmer, in the midst of his 60th season of professional baseball, has played with and managed Hall of Famers, played on and coached World Series winning teams, and seen all there is to see in the game of baseball. His resume too long to list, his accomplishments too numerous to mention, Zimmer epitomizes the sport and has a story for every occasion. “Zim” recently sat down to talk about his career, the state of the Rays, and other observations. The following is Part One of my interview with Don Zimmer.

Q. Why did you decide to make the Bay area your permanent home?

A. In 1953, when I was playing for St. Paul of the American Association, I got hit in the head by a pitched ball and was unconscious for 13 days. It left me in bad shape. I was 175 pounds when I got hit in the head, and when I got out of the hospital 31 days later I weighed 138 pounds. I had to learn how to walk again and I had brain damage. So when I got to the point where I was finally getting back to my feet, my general manager with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Buzzi Bavasi, said to me, "Take your wife, and kids to Florida, recuperate, and I'll see you in Vero Beach in the spring." Well, luckily my in-laws had just moved from Cincinnati to St. Petersburg, so we stayed with them for a couple of months while we looked around to try and find a place to live.

Well, I loved the warm weather, and one day we went out on Treasure Island. It looked like a nice place, so that’s where we built our home. We lived in that house for 52 years, and a year and a half ago my wife decided she wanted to move to a condo, so now we live in up in Seminole.

Q. What has been your favorite thing about spending extra time in the area, first as a coach with the Yankees and now in your role with Tampa Bay?

A. Being able to spend time with family. My son, Thomas, who is now a scout with the San Francisco Giants, went to Boca Ciega High School, but I never got to see him play baseball because I was always in some other state. When I started working with the Yankees 13 years ago, his two boys played baseball at St. Pete High. Sometimes when our practices would let out in the afternoons, I would drive over and watch their games. I really enjoyed this because of what I missed out earlier in life with my son.

Q. In all of your time living in this community, you must have come across Al Lopez on a few occasions?

A. Oh yes, what a wonderful man. I think my favorite Al Lopez story goes back again, to my son when he played football at Boca Ciega High School.

Al's grandson played for Jesuit, or some school in Tampa, and they were playing down in Gulfport. My wife and I drive into the parking lot, and who do I pull alongside but Al Lopez. I said to him, "Al, what are you doing here?" He said "I've got a grandson who's the quarterback." I told him that my son is a halfback on the other team. It was funny running into him there of all places.

You know, I'd been over to his house and we'd sit around sometimes and have lunch in the afternoon. We had a lot of things in common. He had more age on him than I did, but while I knew some of the guys he was talking about, he knew all of the guys I was talking about! It was fun. He was one of the finest gentlemen in the world. You talk about class, he was the tops.

Q. You spent the 1983 season with the New York Yankees as an assistant coach for Billy Martin. Can you talk about what it was like to work with him after managing against him for so many years?

A. Billy was a baseball man - he knew the game and was a hell of a manager. He was tough on (assistant) coaches, though. Not so tough on players, but tough on coaches. We had a pitching coach named Art Fowler. We were sitting on the bench, and our pitcher would throw a curveball and they'd get a hit. Billy would say, "Art, how in the hell could he throw a curve in that situation?" Art had a great temperament, and he knew when Billy got hot to just back off. He'd let him rant and rave. So three innings later, the same hitter would come up and we'd throw him a fastball. So Billy would say, "Art, how in the hell could he throw him a fastball in that situation?" Fowler could not win any way he went, but he knew how to handle Billy.

Q. Do you think Billy Martin should be in the Hall of Fame?

A. I don't know the criteria for the Hall of Fame. What do I know? I thought (former Red Sox outfielder) Jim Rice should have been in the Hall of Fame seven or eight years ago and he isn't. I think (former Dodgers first baseman) Gil Hodges should be in there too, but I'm not the man to make that decision, anyhow. I guess I'm not qualified to make that decision. I know how I feel, but I'll let other people handle that.

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