Don Zimmer simply loved baseball

The Rangers were riding a 13-game losing streak when a young beat writer dragged himself into manager Don Zimmer's office on yet another scorching day in Texas in May 1982.

"What's wrong with you?" Zimmer said with that famous Zim glare.

"Covering this team isn't as much fun as I thought it would be," the writer said.

"Ah, quit complaining," Zimmer snapped. "Look at you. You're young, you have your whole life ahead of you. Look at me. I'm old, I'm fat, I'm bald, I'm ugly, I have a plate in my head. And I have this team to manage. I'm the one with the worries."

And then he flashed that Zim smile, that unmistakable, moonfaced smile that could light up a room, especially one in which baseball was spoken. No one, but no one, loved the game more than Don Zimmer.

He married his beloved wife, Soot, at home plate in Elmira, N.Y. He wore a uniform for 66 years as a player, coach and manager. He won a world championship with the Dodgers in 1955, he managed the Red Sox during their epic collapse in 1978, he managed the Cubs to an unlikely division title in 1989 and, as Joe Torre's bench coach for many years with the Yankees, he became the game's grandfather, baseball's Buddha. In his final job, as a senior adviser for the Rays, he was revered.

Zimmer died Wednesday, as perhaps the mostly widely loved and respected person in the game. For the past few years, Jim Leyland, a former Tigers manager, called him on the phone every day, sometimes two and three times, just to check in, and to pick his brain.

"I love Zim," Leyland said.

Loved by all

Most everyone who knew him, loved him. I will remember him as the manager who told me that day in 1982 to shut up and write, to just be thankful to have a job in baseball. I will remember him as the ultimate gambler, a guy who loved to go to the track, and who didn't manage by the book. In 1982, I saw him walk the Twins' Kent Hrbek with the bases empty with two outs in the ninth inning with a one-run lead (it worked). Twice that year, I saw him hit-and-run with the bases loaded (neither worked), something I'd never seen before or since.

Mostly, I will remember him as the toughest man -- in every way -- that I ever met in a major league uniform. His first nickname was Popeye because his arms were so big, he was short and squat and strong and feisty. In the famous Yankees-Red Sox fight in the 2003 playoffs, Zimmer, then 72, went after Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez, who threw him to the ground (Pedro said he regretted doing that). Zimmer said that night, "I embarrassed myself, I shouldn't have done that," but he never backed down from a fight. Ever.

He was savaged in Boston in 1978 when the Red Sox blew a 14½-game lead over the Yankees, losing in a one-game playoff, a game in which Bucky Dent hit a famous three-run homer. Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee, who nicknamed Zimmer "The Gerbil," criticized him for the way he ran the pitching staff that year. But Zimmer overcame that, as he did everything, always with a laugh and a strong sense of self. A few years after being fired by the Red Sox, Zimmer became a coach with the Yankees, and rented Dent's house in New Jersey.

"Over top of my bed," Zimmer said with a classic laugh, "there was a framed newspaper story with the headline: Sox Dented. I went to bed every night with that hanging over my head."

After Boston, some thought Zimmer would never manage again, but he kept coming back for more, no matter how painful the losses. "I can't help it," he said, "I love it."

Always up for a battle

After Texas, he next managed the flailing Cubs, and took them from 77 wins in 1988 to 93 wins and the division title in 1989, for which he won the National League Manager of the Year. "I missed a sign one time that year," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "Zim waited until everyone in the dugout was listening, then he screamed at me for missing a sign." Zimmer showed the whole team that if he could yell at Sandberg -- a future Hall of Famer -- he could yell at anyone.

It didn't end well with Cubs, but again, Zimmer never showed weakness. Here's how strong he was: In a minor league game in Columbus, Ohio in 1952, Zimmer was hit in the head -- there were no helmets back then -- by a Jim Kirk fastball that he never saw. When Zimmer woke from a coma, his wife, Soot, and his parents were standing by his bed. His vision was so blurred, he saw three of each.

"I thought it was the next day," Zimmer said. "But I'd been out for 13 days."

When he left the hospital after 31 days, he had lost 42 pounds (down to 128) and had four holes drilled in his skull, supported by a plastic plate. Soot had to hold his hand when he walked -- on a good day, he could make it 50 yards. He almost didn't make it. Period.

"I was this close [to dying]," he said, his index and middle finger held a half-inch apart.

He played the next year.

"You know that the pitchers did?" Zimmer said. "They threw at me to see if I was scared."

He wasn't.

"I moved closer to the plate," he said.

In 1956, Zimmer was hit in the face again, this time purposely, he said, by Hal Jeffcoat, who never once called to check on him.

"My face caved in," Zimmer said. "They put a hundred needles in my face to get rid of the black blood."

His retina was detached. He was blindfolded for six weeks. He had to feel for his food; many times, he stabbed his chin with his fork. His children weren't allowed to touch him, the slightest nudge could cause more damage to the eye. After six weeks, he was allowed to wear slate glasses, which had pinholes.

"I was the happiest guy in the world," Zimmer said. "I could watch TV."

Zimmer came back and played the next year. He played 19 years in the major and minor leagues. He says he was "lucky," not courageous. He was just being modest: He was strong.

That toughness came from growing up playing three sports in high school in Cincinnati; he was a great high school football player. His son, Tom, was a terrific high school football player also, and remembers his father's voice piercing through the crowd every game: Hit somebody!

Tom Zimmer was also the field goal kicker.

"I had a game-winning kick one night," Tom said. "My father was standing right behind the goalpost, he was the only spectator back there, and he had his arms crossed with the look of, 'You better not miss this!' In the huddle, one of my teammates said, 'Do you see your dad behind the goalpost?' I did. I kicked it right over his bald head, and we won that game."

Lifetime of loyalty

I saw Zimmer's competitiveness, his loyalty and his sense of humor in 1982 when I covered his Rangers team that was indescribably bad. During that 13-game losing streak, Zimmer was ordered by ownership to meet individually with his players to discuss short-term goals, an insulting directive that came from a front-office numbskull who said that marketing a baseball team was the same as marketing a tube of toothpaste. So Zimmer had to call in his players, and ask how many hits each thought they'd get in their next 25 at-bats.

Outfielder Leon Roberts, who was hitting under .200, told Zimmer "I think I'll get 17 hits."

"That's a lot of hits," Zimmer said.

When the Rangers finally broke that 13-game losing streak, the phone rang in his office. Zimmer picked up the phone.

"Yes, Mr. President," he said, laughing.

Later that summer, Zimmer was fired on a Monday morning, but was asked as a favor to Rangers owner Eddie Chiles to manage the team Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night because Chiles didn't have a replacement. Out of loyalty, Zimmer agreed. When he was officially fired, he took his coaches, some of the clubhouse guys and the beat writers out to dinner at a local Arlington restaurant called Mr. Catfish. Late in the night, Brad Corbett, the former owner of the Rangers, took off his watch -- a Rolex -- and gave it to Zimmer.

"I can't accept this," Zimmer said. "I already have a watch. I've had it for 20 years."

He was a proud man, a simple man, a man always in search of the next competition, whatever it might be. One day, he took me to the on-deck circle before a game, got in a wrestler's crouch, put his hands out in front of him and said, "OK, now we're going to fight. You can't leave this circle, only one man comes out alive, this is a fight to the death."

"I would rather fight a Martian," I said. "You would kill me in two seconds."

The last time I saw Don Zimmer at the ballpark was last September at Tropicana Field. He looked old and tired, dragged down from weekly dialysis. He hadn't played golf in years, he couldn't stay for all nine innings of a game, he needed help getting around the ballpark. For the first time in my life, I saw someone other than the rough, tough Don Zimmer.

"Do you think I could I beat you in a fight in the circle?" I said.

"I'm done," he said. "Even you could beat me now."

And then he gave me that famed Zim smile. It will always be my final image of him.