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Zimmer a treasure trove of stories, true treasure himself

By Roger Mooney
Published: April 13, 2014 Updated: April 13, 2014 at 08:52 AM
When Don Zimmer speaks, the Rays are quick to listen, as Wil Myers demonstrates during the 2013 postseason.

CINCINNATI — The Rays are in Don Zimmer's hometown this weekend, so this seems as good of a time as any to listen as the Rays talk about baseball's elder statesman.

Zimmer, 83, is preparing for surgery Wednesday to repair a leaky heart valve.

Zim suffered a stroke in 2012. He is on daily dialysis for kidney failure. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank on Opening Day when he was part of yet another Opening Day ceremony.

“I hate seeing him like that,” Rays bench Dave Martinez said. “He needs to get better. We need him out here.”

Zim began his 66th season in professional baseball on Opening Day, his 56th at the major-league level. He has spent the past 11 as the Rays' senior adviser.

Along the way, Zim married his high school sweetheart, Soot, in 1951 at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., played on the Brooklyn Dodgers' only World Series championship team, was an original New York Met, managed the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs and was Joe Torre's bench coach with the New York Yankees on four World Series-winning teams.

The idea to run over and give Zimmer a handshake and hug before heading out to the first base line when introduced on Opening Day belonged to left fielder David DeJesus, who batted leadoff that afternoon.

Zimmer had just been introduced to the Tropicana Field crowd and rode down the right field line in a golf cart driven by Rays team travel director Chris Westmoreland as fans stood and cheered.

“That was something I think we needed to do,” DeJesus said. “He needed to be honored.”

Zim is a bottomless well of baseball knowledge. He can tell stories about playing at Ebbets Field or Shibe Park, of winning a World Series and losing a heartbreaking one-game playoff. He has been booed in Boston and cheered in Boston.

Need a pat on the back? A kick in the rear? Then Zim's your guy.

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Evan Longoria, third baseman: “There were a couple of times my rookie year when he found me and it was me and him and he explained to me just little tidbits about how to be a professional. There were times when I got frustrated and threw my helmet, not run as hard as I should have, just whatever he saw and he would mention those things to me, and he always had a way of doing it the right way. He's been a manager, he's been a bench coach, he's been around the game long enough to know how certain players handle certain things. I think he knew whatever he said to me I was not going to take offense to it. I have a tremendous respect for him, so whatever he said was pretty much the gold standard for me. Those were very influential moments.”

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Ben Zobrist, second baseman: “From the moment I've been here, whenever I made a play in the outfield, even when I was not playing every day, I'd make a play in the outfield and cut the runner off from going from first to second, keeping a guy from getting a double on a ball down the line by hustling, he was always the guy who came up to me in the dugout and say, 'I'm the type of guy who's going to realize how important that is, that hustle, just doing what you did to hold that guy to one base.' To me, him giving me some respect as a ball player means a lot.”

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Westmoreland: “He's got a very hard exterior, but when you get to know him, nothing means more to him than his family and friends. He's very loyal. He loves the Rays, he loves Joe (Maddon), he loves the front office, Andrew (Friedman) and those guys. He respects them for what they've done. There's some philosophical differences, he's old school, they're new school. But he respects everyone in the clubhouse 10 times more than he would express, I can tell you that.”

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Scott Cursi, bullpen catcher: “I remember watching 'The Lost Son of Havana,' about (Boston pitcher) Luis Tiant going back to Cuba and reuniting with his family. There's a scene where Tiant's dad is going to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. He's wearing a cap, a black fishing cap. Zim takes off his cap and puts it on his head so he's wearing a Red Sox cap when he goes on the field. That's Zim.”

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Longoria: “I'd ask him stories about managing the Red Sox and managing the Cubs, playing with Jackie Robinson, stuff that I know he had been through and I was interested in. He's never been cold or rude. He's always been very open and honest and easy to talk to. It's very fun to be around him and be a small part of his life in baseball.”

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Westmoreland: “His stories are endless.”

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Longoria: “When you get him going, his eyes light up and he heats up like a tea kettle.”

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Cursi: “He likes to talk about how different it was back then. There was never any food in the clubhouse. If you wanted something to eat you had to pay somebody to go out and get it and bring it back in after batting practice.”

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Westmoreland: “He'll look at the (food) spread in the clubhouse and he'll say, 'When we played there was a chalkboard and you took candy and you put a mark on the board and you paid for that each day. Now you have full spreads and all these meals.' He'd talk about how the players were scared of managers back then. Whatever the manager said was a done deal, and how that's changed.”

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Martinez, who played for Zim with the Cubs in 1988: “He was a very intense manager. Very astute. Every day he'd come to the ballpark, he was rip-roaring to go. He's always been a teacher to me. To this day I'll ask him questions. He knows this game like no one else.”

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DeJesus: “We were talking about bunting last year. He said, 'Do you do it a lot? It can help us with moving runners. Get yourself 10 extra points on your batting average.' I wasn't expecting that.”

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Zobrist: “I'll never forget this video I watched before I knew Zim. It was Pete Rose in spring training, the Yankees were playing the Reds and Mickey Mantle hits a home run that was like 100 feet over the wall in right field, and Pete Rose was playing right field and he jumps at the wall to try and rob the home run, which was nowhere close to him. Rose would take a walk and run to first base. Some of the players were saying 'Charlie Hustle this and Charlie that,' and Zim says, 'Charlie Hustle? Everybody should play the game the way that guy plays.' ”

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