By Jason Keidel-
(CBS) Sometimes the cliche fits. He was indeed an original.
He is Don Zimmer, who died yesterday, and the roots of his baseball family tree dig so deep into history that you just let his progeny tell the tale.
He was the Bronx’s baseball Yoda, a caricature and a distillation of the baseball character, the pudgy Popeye, short and round, whose puffy face seemed inflated by a nearby air tank, his eyes like two bulging orbs, a natural scowl that belied his festive nature, a shiny dome and baggy pants and a waddle.
He fits every exaggerated contour of our pastime, seasoned by decades in dugouts. The game isn’t just about innings and runs and batting averages. The sport dwells in the spittoon, cleats peeling from the wet, sticky floors, crunching on the blizzards of sunflower seeds and stained by showers of tobacco juice. Zimmer was the essence of baseball’s quirks, from his face to his pace to his place in the sport’s endless lore.
Don Zimmer was the high priest whose dome Derek Jeter rubbed before every game, like a living talisman. But beyond smoothing his palm on Zimmer’s skull, Jeter credits Zimmer with teaching him endless diamond knowledge. As does everyone who came into Zimmer’s world.
Zimmer nestled nicely into the sport, like an eternal ornament, for six or seven decades. We abhor the lazy platitudes to frame a famous person, but in Zimmer’s case it actually applies.
You could argue that every living American, no matter his age or wage, could have some oblong connection to Zimmer, whose baseball career began in the late 1940s. Some know him as a Red Sox. Some know him as a Cub. Some may even know him as a Brooklyn Dodger. But in New York, we know him as a Yankee.
And perhaps no one was more hardwired into Zimmer than Joe Girardi, who was Zimmer’s de facto caddy for countless years. Girardi played for Zimmer in 10 of his first 11 seasons after he was drafted by Zimmer’s Chicago Cubs in 1989, when they won a most unlikely division title, after which the chubby, cherubic Zim cried in gratitude. Wherever Zimmer went, G.I. Joe followed.
Girardi misses him. Joe Maddon misses him. We miss him. Paul O’Neill said he got to the dugout early just to hear Zimmer’s stories, which were real and robust. Zimmer was a baseball consiglieri for so long he blended into Americana, a living connection to the time when baseball was perfect, before it was poisoned, like all sports, by PEDs and paparazzi.
Zimmer’s career sprawled so far out into the baseball strata we can’t even be sure when it started – or ended. We hear it spanned 66 years. He met Babe Ruth, played with Jackie Robinson and coached Derek Jeter – perhaps the longest tenure in baseball east of Vin Scully.
Zimmer always seemed connected to the Yankees. Not only was he Joe Torre’s renowned wingman, his Dodgers beat the Yankees in 1955, wrenching an eternal monkey off the backs of Dem Bums; and his Red Sox lost to the Yankees in the epic 1978 collapse, unable to coax said mammal off Boston’s back.
Everyone has an anecdote. Suzyn Waldman mused over Zimmer’s postgame ritual of telling reporters he had to go over some charts when in fact he ducked into his office to study racing forms, ready to bet Belmont or Hong Kong. It’s a shame Zim didn’t have a few days left to enjoy the chance of a Triple Crown this weekend.
But if anyone lived a long life, it’s Don Zimmer. And if anyone lived a good life, it was Don Zimmer. And he’d be the first to tell you, while you rub his head.
Sometimes a life is so robust its ending morphs into mourning and celebration. We are sad to lose Don Zimmer, but we are glad to remember Don Zimmer. We feel like we knew Don Zimmer, the classic, baseball everyman who couldn’t fit into a big suit or bathing suit, but was perfect for our pastime.
Baseball celebrates the oddball, the goofball and the fella who just felt best in a baseball cap. Zimmer often expressed gratitude for the game. Now it’s our turn. Don Zimmer: far less cliche than a class act.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel.