Don Zimmer: A Life in Baseball, for Better and Worse
The passing of Don Zimmer is being celebrated by many old, grizzled baseball guys — and by many young, grizzled baseball guys pretending to be old — as yet another reason to wallow in the weaponized nostalgia that attends so much of the way we talk about baseball. We are reminded (relentlessly) that Zimmer, who died yesterday at 83, “never drew a paycheck outside of baseball,” as though this says something about Zimmer’s character, rather than simply that Zimmer was very fortunate his entire life to stay pretty much in the same job, even in an era in which people are expected to have three or four different careers just to survive. However, in my own experience with Zimmer, which was limited, the fact that he lived his entire life within the baseball bubble was not something that served him well as a human being or, for that matter, as a baseball manager.
Because he spent his entire career in the universe of baseball, Zimmer was convinced, as were many of his contemporaries, and far too many players of the present day, that excelling in baseball made you an expert on almost everything else. (My introduction to that came one day on the Red Sox bus when, during an argument over the decision in the Hagler-Leonard fight, longtime coach and eventual Boston manager Joe Morgan played what he firmly believed was his trump card. “Have you asked the guys on this ballclub?” he said. So I should change my mind about the decision in a prize fight based on what Rich Gedman’s opinion was? Baseball is weird that way.) People tell stories about Zimmer’s making great sport of people he caught reading books on the airplane or on the bus. This, too, is a classic Old Baseball Guy trope. Anti-intellectualism is a point of pride, and it always has been. (This attitude is also why Tony La Russa’s law degree is treated within the world of baseball as though La Russa personally split the atom.) In all my experiences with athletes, baseball players are the only ones who have constructed an entire intellectual infrastructure around the notion that, because they have excelled at their sport, prima facie, they are smarter than anyone else about just about everything else. It is a generational kind of hilariously unearned arrogance.
I would maintain that the insulated life Zimmer lived within The Game was materially involved in the two most embarrassing experiences of his long career, both of which largely played out in Fenway Park. The first, of course, was the collapse of the 1978 Boston Red Sox, during which Zimmer, as manager, refused to pitch Bill Lee in a crucial series against the New York Yankees, in large part because Lee wasn’t what Zimmer thought a Ballplayer should be. (And, it should be said, because Lee called him a Gerbil, which was completely unfair, but which, alas, stuck.) On July 19 of that year, the Red Sox were 14 games ahead of the Yankees. By September, when the Yankees came to town, they had given almost all of it back, and the Yankees beat them four straight by a total score of 42-9 in what became known as the Boston Massacre.
Instead, Zimmer started a rookie named Bobby Sprowl, who got shelled. The whole thing has eclipsed in memory the fact that the Red Sox got up out of the ditch and won 10 of their last 12 to force the epic one-game playoff that made a curse word out of Bucky Dent’s middle name. And it’s not like Zimmer was presiding over the only unruly clubhouse in baseball that year; the Yankees were in the middle of yet another spasm of the George Steinbrenner–Billy Martin love-hate fandango. (Martin resigned and was replaced by Bob Lemon on July 23, after which New York immediately went on the 17-9 stretch that began its long comeback.) And an important part of it was that Zimmer operated as a manager based on the fact that he so deeply enshrined in himself the unwritten rules that baseball so celebrates about itself that he couldn’t see beyond them to put the best pitcher on the mound in a crucial situation.
We move along, then, to 2003, with the Yankees and Red Sox tangled up in an American League Championship Series game that got fractious when Pedro Martinez went upstairs on New York’s Karim Garcia. Later, of course, a general brawl broke out and Zimmer, then 73 years old, charged Martinez, who briefly looked utterly nonplussed, and then did the gentlest thing he could have done at that moment, which was to sidestep and redirect Zimmer, whose momentum — and the fact that he was, you know, 73 — brought him to the ground. Spectacularly, the spin on the incident was that Martinez had brutalized a septuagenarian. Because good ol’ Zim was a baseball lifer, very few people asked what a man his age was doing acting like such a public jackass. Remarkably, this sorry episode continues to be marked by some people as though it were an admirable action on the part of Zimmer, who Never Drew A Check Outside Of Baseball.
He had a good life, Zim did. He found something he loved and he managed to do it, in one way or another, for his entire life, and that after his very promising playing career was severely damaged by a horrific beaning in 1953. That is what everybody in America used to be able to do, all those second- and third-generation steel jockeys and autoworkers. Don Zimmer made a career in one of the few industries left in which you can still make a career. I may not love baseball as much as he did, but I used to love the country where that was possible.