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Thursday, June 5, 2014
Loss of Zim tougher than loss of game

By Wallace Matthews

NEW YORK -- Joe Girardi was in tears at his postgame news conference tonight, but it had nothing to do with anything that happened on the field at Yankee Stadium.

Yes, his team had lost, for the fourth straight game and the fifth time in six games at home, and it had dropped back to .500 and six games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East race. For a change, the Yankees had hit a little bit, but not nearly enough on a night their makeshift bullpen imploded, and the result was a 7-4 loss to the Oakland Athletics, currently the best team in the American League.

But the Yankees had lost more than a game on this night; they had suffered a death in the family.

Midway through the game, word began to sweep through their dugout that Don Zimmer, who had served as Joe Torre's right-hand man throughout that last great Yankees era, and who had even stepped in to manage the club for 36 games in 1999 when Torre went down with prostate cancer, had died in a hospital in Dunedin, Florida, at 83.

Don Zimmer and Joe Girardi
Joe Girardi considered Don Zimmer to be a mentor.
The news could hardly have been a shock; Zimmer had had a stroke six years ago, and went into a hospital in April for open-heart surgery and never came out of a rehab center.

Still, his roots with this club ran deep, even if there were just a handful of current Yankees who even knew who he was.

There was Girardi, who was a Chicago Cubs rookie in 1989 when Zimmer was the manager, and there was Derek Jeter, who knew him from the beginning of his big-league life and came to regard him as a sort of Buddha-like talisman, and took rubbing his head for good luck; Alfonso Soriano, who had been a Yankee from 1999-2003 in a previous life, and Kelly Johnson, who would have known him from his one season with Tampa Bay, for whom Zimmer worked as a special advisor after leaving the Yankees.

Soriano and Johnson left the Yankees clubhouse quickly after the disheartening loss, but clearly, it was Jeter and Girardi who were most deeply affected by Zimmer's death.

“Great baseball man. A baseball lifer. He was a mentor to me," said Girardi, wiping away tears. "I had him 10 out of my first 11 years in the big leagues, so wherever he went, I went. He taught me a lot about this game. A close friend. I’m going to miss him.”

“That’s a tough one to swallow," Jeter said. "Everyone knows how much Zim has meant, not only to our organization, but to baseball as a whole. Your thoughts and prayers go out to his family. That’s tough news. I found out halfway through the game. That’s a rough one.”

Jeter muttered a few lines about how nice Zimmer had been to his family, how great a teacher he had been, and how much he liked to have fun with the game before abruptly, and uncharacteristically, cutting the interview short, perhaps fearing he was about to lose his carefully-cultivated self-control.

Girardi, much more open with his emotions in front of the media, share some remembrances of the bald, cherubic chipmunk-faced man everyone called "Popeye," such as how competitive he could be, whether in the dugout or at a card table, and how ebullient he could be in victory.

"I saw Zim dance on a table after we came from behind and won a game," Girardi said, smiling through his tears. "And the table broke, and snapped, and there came Zim down."

He also told a more serious story, about being a Cubs rookie and being told by Zimmer that he had made the team, but not to tell anyone. "I was thinking, 'How am I going to do that?'" Girardi recalled. "I was scared to death to tell anyone; I really was."

Those were the days when a manager was The Law; the only person Girardi told was his wife, Kim, fearing even to tell his own father.

Stories like that made you remember once again how different this Yankee team is than the Torre-Zimmer Yankees, and how much has changed in the years that have passed along with that regime.

For the past couple of years, the Yankees have seemed like a group of transients, with no tangible core of veterans to rely on. And this time next year, Jeter will be gone, leaving Girardi as the last link to a golden chain that has tarnished with the passage of time.

Even Jeter managed a smile when someone reminded him of the famous brawl between Zim and Pedro Martinez during the 2003 ALCS, when the 72-year-old bench coach spotted the Red Sox ace four decades his junior and charged him on the field. “That was him," Jeter said. "He was a fighter. He was intense. That exemplifies him. He was into the game and he was fun to be around.”

That is another thing missing from the Yankees clubhouse these days. A sense of fun and a stomach for the fight.

On another night, a blown four-run lead leading to a 7-4 loss to the Oakland Athletics at home would have seemed cataclysmic.

But on the night the Yankees lost more than just a game, it didn't seem very important at all.

Rook rocked: Jose Ramirez was thrilled before the game, having been recalled from Triple-A Scranton the night before, and dejected after it, having surrendered the seventh-inning home run to Josh Donaldson that turned out to be the game-winner.

"It was my first time and I was a little bit nervous," Ramirez said through an interpreter. "The bullpen coach told me who I was going to face, so I knew what was going on."

The pitch Donaldson hit for his 16th home run of the season was a fastball clocked at 95 mph.

"The kid did OK," Girardi said of Ramirez, who worked two innings on a night the bullpen was thin, allowing two hits, just the one run and striking out two, including Yoenis Cespedes, who had homered off Vidal Nuno and Matt Daley.

Ellsbury heating up: Jacoby Ellsbury went 3-for-5, including a three-run home run in the third, and is hitting .375 on the homestand, with nine hits in 24 at-bats. He has also hit in nine straight games. "It's nice to be going out there and contributing," he said, "but I'll trade the hit streak for a win any day."

Got the runs: The four runs the Yankees scored tonight was the most they have scored at home since May 18, when they scored four against the Pirates. The last time the Yankees had this type of scoring drought was in 2003.