For those of you who remember Yaz, Pudge, and Spaceman, you’ll all know who the Gerbil was. For those of you who are younger and grew up with Pedro, Manny, and Tek, you’ll remember Zip. As a matter of fact, you could be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan from exactly 60 years ago, and you would know who Don Zimmer was.
The baseball world lost a legend earlier yesterday when Zimmer passed away at a Florida hospital. He was 83.
Zimmer was a man who can say not only did he meet Babe Ruth, but he also never collected a paycheck outside of baseball. If you’re wondering how he did that in an era when ballplayers all had second jobs to support their families, the answer makes sense: he played winter ball. He’d spend his MLB off-season in places such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.
As a player, Zimmer suited up alongside greats such as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider in Brooklyn. Interestingly enough, he also played there with someone who would also one day manage the Red Sox, Dick Williams. He was a teammate of Sandy Koufax’ in Los Angeles, and played in the same infield as Ernie Banks in Chicago. He played on two World Series Championship teams for the Dodgers, one in Brooklyn in 1955 and one in Los Angeles in 1959. As a manager, he had teams that included Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk, or Fergie Jenkins and Andre Dawson. As a coach he had players under him such as Derek Jeter, Wade Boggs, and Roger Clemens.
Red Sox fans, though, know two versions of Zimmer. They recall the manager of the 1978 Red Sox team that blew a 14 game, late season lead and then lost to the New York Yankees in a one-game playoff when Bucky Fu…well, that’s past history now, exorcised with three titles in the last ten years. They also recall Bill Lee affectionately dub Zimmer with the nickname “The Gerbil” because of his bulging cheeks.
The new generation of Red Sox fans (who think the Duck boats roll every two to three years out of Fenway in the fall) recall Zimmer as the bench coach of the Yankees, particularly Game 3 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway in 2003. Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez had accidently thrown a pitch that accidently went near Yankee outfielder Karim Garcia’s head. Later in the game, Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens misremembered that you should aim for the strike zone, and let a fastball fly right at Manny Ramirez’ head. The dugouts emptied for the second time that day, and Zimmer, who was only 72 at the time, went right after Pedro, who was 40 years his junior! Pedro grabbed Zimmer by the head and flung him down to the ground. The next day, an emotional Zimmer publicly apologized for his actions.
Zimmer leaves behind his two children, and his wife of 63 years. Not so surprisingly, he married her at home plate on a baseball diamond in Elmira, N.Y. Zimmer’s was a baseball life well lived.