Monday, June 16, 2008

Catching Up With Don Zimmer, Part II

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 the conclusion of a two-part interview with Don Zimmer.

Q. You played alongside and managed numerous Hall of Famers during your career. Who stands out in your mind among those players?

A. Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Ryne Sandberg, Carl Yastrzemski, oh my God! I was with all of them. Some of them I managed, some of them I played with. You can go on and on. It's great that I can even sit here and even think about those guys and how lucky I've been.

Q. What about some players who aren't in the Hall of Fame?

A. Now, two guys that aren't in the Hall of Fame that I can mention real quick are Jim Rice and Andre Dawson. As far as I'm concerned, they are Hall of Famers. They were the total package. Jim Rice came to Boston and had to play in front of the Green Monster. He wasn't very good defensively at first. Johnny Pesky and I were coaches with Boston at the time. Never once did we have to tell Jimmy Rice to get out in left field to hit him balls. He'd come to us. He wore Pesky and I out hitting him balls off that Monster. Then Jimmy Rice went on to become a very, very good leftfielder through hard work. As for Andre, he'd come to the ballpark and got his knees taped up, first thing. Then he'd head out for practice. After that he would go back in the clubhouse, take the tape off, and get re-taped to be ready for the game. Andre is a man's man. He was a phenomenal player, and better than that, a phenomenal human being.

Q. Does this Rays team remind you of any teams that you managed during your career?

A. I don't like to compare players or compare teams, but in 1989 I managed a team, the Chicago Cubs, that everyone in America picked to be last coming out of Spring Training. If I was a writer, I would have picked us last, too. After 35 games we were 17-18, and I thought that was a hell of a record for us since we had several rookies in the starting lineup. We'd win a game, lose a game, win a game, and then before you know it was the All-Star break and we're up there with the Cardinals, Mets and Expos. We were all within two games of each other.

So at that point, we said, "Hell, why can't we win?" Then the media said we couldn't win with a rookie catcher. So I said, "What do you want me to do? Go out and get a veteran catcher who can't do anything, or a rookie catcher that's doing a little bit of everything." That catcher was Joe Girardi, who won a couple of World Series rings with us in New York and is now the manager of the Yankees.

When we clinched the Eastern Division championship up in Montreal, it was the biggest thrill I ever had in baseball in 60 years. If we'd have won in Boston, we were figured to win. We won 90 games every year, but always wound up second. They picked us to win. Everyone picked the Cubs to finish last.

That team reminds me a little bit of this team. Some youth, a few veterans, and before you know it you start believing in yourself. Instead of coming to the ballpark everyday thinking, "Here comes another loss."

When you lose so many, it's only natural that you're going to feel that way. I mean, these guys can't wait to get to the ballpark. I'm having fun today watching them have fun. For someone to hit a walk off double or home run, and I see them jumping up and down at home plate, that's a thrill for me.

Q. What has been the main difference this year?

A. Well, there are a lot of differences. One, we went into Spring Training with a better bunch of guys. We've got a better clubhouse. A lot of people don't want to buy that, but that to me is a very important thing of having the right chemistry with your 25 men, your manager and your coaches. I could see this spring, before we even played a game, that we had a better group of individuals. Now even the writers can enjoy walking into the clubhouse, instead of walking in and waiting for something to explode. I think that's where it started, having a greater group of people. Not only that, but we've got more talent.

It's great for me to see some of these guys pitching the way they are. The catcher, Dioner Navarro, playing the way he is. The third baseman, Evan Longoria, doesn't have to take a backseat defensively to anyone in baseball. He's going to struggle at times at the plate because he's a young kid in the big leagues for the first time. But if you watch him, he looks like a ten-year veteran. When a guy's not hitting, lots of times his defense falls. Well, I don't know who could play any better than he has at third base. So many things, the trade that the organization made to get Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. That was a big move.

Last year when we made that trade, people wondered how "Aki" (Akinori Iwamura) was going to make the transition to second base. I said, "There's gonna be nothing to it, this guy's an athlete. He's gonna go over there and play like heck." Which to me, he has. He's done a great job. We're better. How much better, I don't know. It's actually fun to watch them, though.

Q. So can we expect to see you again next season?

A. First of all, I'll tell you the same thing I tell everybody. People come up to me around September and ask if I'm coming back. I never answer that, because first of all you've got to be asked back. Then you make a decision. If I say to you, "Oh I'm going to be back next year." Well, how the heck do I know that? They might have different ideas. So I just play it by ear. The way I feel today, if I am asked back, I'll be in Port Charlotte for Spring Training next year. If I'm not asked back, that's alright too. I've had a great ride, and nobody could be any luckier than I've been in this game.

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