photo credit: J. Meric / Getty Images
I think everybody who has ever met Don Zimmer has a story.
With Zim's passing Wednesday at the age of 83, I wanted to tell some of them, including one of my own.
I watched the 1999 All-Star Game at Boston's Fenway Park, and seeing the greatest players in the world gathered around Ted Williams, looking to glean some important piece of wisdom from him. I remember thinking to myself if I'd ever see someone get the same sort of attention again.
Don Zimmer got that attention, and then some.
It wasn't just players that sought out a few minutes from the long-time player, coach, manager, and for the last eleven seasons, senior baseball advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays. You could always find a group of reporters (myself included) gathered around Zim while he was holding court. Knowing Williams' reputation with the media, you never would have seen that with him.
Front office executives, scouts, managers, coaches, clubhouse attendants and so many more people that work in and around the great sport of baseball clamored to be near when Don Zimmer was in the room.
After all, this is a guy who had met Babe Ruth, who played with Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, who managed Carl Yastrzemski, Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux, and coached Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Evan Longoria.
And Zim always seemed to enjoy spending time with all of them.
"I'm totally going to miss his advice," Rays manager Joe Maddon said after Wednesday's game. "He used to come in here a lot of times prior to the games and he'd bring me that little bag of Coney Island hot dogs and we'd sit here and talk about what's going on."
Few players were closer with Zimmer than third baseman Evan Longoria, who told me he'll miss the ribbing the senior baseball advisor loved giving him.
"He was always ragging on me," Longoria said. "That was the one thing I could always look forward to from him: him giving me grief over something, or just reminding me about the important things in the game and not the wins and the losses and not the numbers.
"He brought so much to my game and those days sitting in the dugout will be missed."
Even a number of former Rays expressed their thoughts about Zim as well as their condolences on his passing.
Had the pleasure to work w/Don Zimmer w/the Rays & I just want to take a moment to remember one of baseballs greats. You will be missed— Scott Kazmir (@scottkazmir19) June 5, 2014
Zim taught me a great life lesson. "If you want a baseball marriage to work, take your family everywhere they send you." I have to this day.— Justin Ruggiano (@justinruggiano) June 5, 2014
The baseball world lost a great man today!! The man that had seen it all!! U will be missed Zim! RIP— Chris Gimenez (@ChrisGimenez5) June 5, 2014
So sad to hear the news, it was great to have met you Don Zimmer. R.I.P.— Jose Lobaton (@JLobaton21) June 5, 2014
However, some of the best stories of the night came from a man known for telling stories: Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.
During tonight's game between the Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox in Los Angeles, the Hall-of-Fame broadcaster told fans about how beloved Zimmer was as a member of the Dodgers organization, which went so far as getting special permission from the league to allow Zimmer to sit in the Brooklyn dugout during the 1953 World Series, despite not being on the active roster, and missing most of the season and spending 13 days in a coma after being beaned while playing for the Dodgers top farm team in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Scully also told a story from Zimmer's time as manager of the Chicago Cubs which you just have to hear from the man himself below.
As for my own experiences with Don Zimmer, I got to be with him (and his grandson Beau, who has been one of my great friends over the years) when the Zim Bear was unveiled to him for the first time. I remember being as giddy as a schoolgirl the first time I said hello to him and he replied "Hello, Steve."
However, I'll never forget Opening Day 2013, when the Rays had Zim and his family throw out the first pitch. I believe it may have been the last time he was in a Rays uniform. He was sitting on the bench in the Rays dugout, and someone asked him if he ever got tired of Opening Day.
"No, no," he said quickly. He went on to say he did think about if it was going to be the last time he saw Opening Day in uniform, and what it was like to not get on the field.
"I don't know, Zim," Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune said quickly. "You know Joe [Maddon] plays everybody."
Zim laughed. He wasn't a loud sort of laugher, but you knew that if you could get him to guffaw, you had done a good job.
The baseball world and the Tampa Bay community is going to miss that laugh, and I know I'm a better person because I got to spend time with Don Zimmer.