Zimmer will be dearly missed by many in the game
Baseball lifer had special way of making those around him feel like close friends
There were the cherished dinners at Villa Gallace. It was always veal parmigiana with a little white zinfandel, but baseball was the main course.
The hours of baseball talk are deeply etched in the memory, and like Don Zimmer, they were priceless treasures that will remain alive forever.
The heart is heavy today because Zim died Wednesday, finally giving in to a myriad of health problems he couldn't overcome.
There were the exhausting sessions of kidney dialysis, the April 16 open-heart surgery to repair a leaky valve, and the fibrosis on his lungs that drained every ounce of energy from this wonderful and amazing human being. Zimmer was 83.
Yes, we were friends. But the thing about Don Zimmer that made him so special is that he made just about everyone around him feel like his best friend.
Zimmer loved to make light of his playing career, telling tale after tale, always bringing out the contagious laugh from his beloved wife, Soot. They were married Aug. 16, 1951, before a Minor League game in Elmira, N. Y.
"It's been an amazing life for a .235 hitter," he often said, adding "there's nothing in life I'd rather be doing than baseball."
Zimmer spent 66 years in the game, the past 11 as senior advisor with the Tampa Bay Rays. He wasn't in uniform this season or last. But it was hard for Zim to stay away from Tropicana Field. He'd often come to the park, visit privately with the players and sit in the stands behind home plate and watch batting practice.
"I was in the chair today," Zimmer would tell me, relating to dialysis in 2013. "That takes a lot out of me, but I like being here. We'll have to do dinner soon."
Zimmer's best friend was Jim Leyland, the former manager. They talked on the phone at least once every day. And when Leyland's Tigers were in St. Petersburg to play the Rays, they'd go to Tampa Bay Downs; Zim loved betting the horses.
Zimmer compiled the .235 average over 12 seasons, playing with five teams. No season, however, was more bizarre than 1961 with the Cubs.
In one of my last conversations with Zim in December, as I was researching a book I was writing, he talked about that season.
Zimmer was in his second season with the Cubs when owner Phil Wrigley concocted his "College of Coaches."
"There would be no manager, with revolving coaches," Zim explained, a smile coming across his face. "Mr. Wrigley said they'd be going back and forth from our Triple-A club. They theory was that while one of them was serving as head coach, the others would devote their time to teaching the finer points of baseball to the players.
"There was Vedie Himsl, Harry Craft, Elvin Tappe and Lou Klein. Of that group, only Craft had managed in the Majors. That didn't matter to Mr. Wrigley. The idea was to educate us."
And with that came Zimmer's new role. He said because of the revolving coaches, they wanted to name a team captain.
"And that was me," Zim said. "Captain of what? On Opening Day, Himsl, the first head coach, made the announcement that the team needed a captain. I laughed; that's when I knew captains were a joke. To me there was only one captain in baseball and that was the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese. When I look back, I believe I was chosen because of my work with the young third baseman, Ron Santo. Mr. Wrigley felt the college of coaches needed a veteran 'assistant' on the field."
Zimmer, on a roll now, related a story from his book, "Zim."
"I suppose I should have been honored -- after all, Ernie Banks was on this team -- but when you're a lifetime .235 hitter, being captain doesn't mean a whole helluva lot," Zimmer said.
"Nevertheless, I quickly found out the captaincy had its advantages. Not long after Himsl informed me of the front office's decision, I called Pee Wee and asked him if being captain was worth any money. Much to my surprise, he told me the Dodgers paid him an extra $500 every year he was captain.
"Well, when the first paychecks arrived that season, I discovered an extra check with mine for $500. Suddenly, I started having a different outlook about being captain. It might be a crock, but at least it was a worthwhile crock. Fifteen days later, the next check came and, much to my surprise, there was another check for $500. I figured this had to be a mistake, but I didn't say anything.
"Then, two weeks later, I got another $500. Now, I was worried. I didn't want them to come to me at the end of the season and say they'd made a mistake and that I owed them all that money -- or that I had to pay taxes on all those captain's checks. So, I went to the general manager and told him I thought it was a mistake. He said, 'Mr. Wrigley wants it this way as long as you're doing your job with the young players.' "
Zimmer criticized the "College of Coaches" during a radio interview on the last day of the season, a season in which the Cubs lost 90 games.
"I guess this has happened before," he said, "but the moment the season was over -- the season in which I was named team captain and an All-Star -- the Cubs got rid of me!"
Zimmer managed the Cubs for four seasons beginning in 1988. In '89, his team won the National League East title, but didn't advance past the NL Championship Series. However, Zimmer won the NL Manager of the Year Award.
Yes, Donald William Zimmer was a delight. He is gone now and has left an indescribable emptiness among all who touched his marvelous life -- and many, many more.
The memories will last for generations to come.
And the next time I visit the Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., restaurant he loved so much, it will be veal parmigiana with a toast of white zinfandel on the side to the man we call Zim.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.