Commentary

Baseball gods owed Don Zimmer one

Ex-Yanks bench coach took a gift from the hardball heavens -- a seat next to Torre

Updated: June 5, 2014, 10:35 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

The baseball gods are more forgiving with than you think, and Don Zimmer could have attested to that. They saddled his managerial legacy with the collapse of 1978, when his Boston Red Sox blew a 14-game lead to the New York Yankees, and made him endure the sight of a slap-hitting shortstop, Bucky Dent, swatting the division clincher over the great green wall in left field.

It was a fate far worse than his .235 career batting average or his 1962 season as a member of the original Mets. But in the end, out of left field, Zimmer got even on all scoreboards. The baseball gods owed him more than one, so they handed him a seat next to Joe Torre in 1996, the best seat in the house.

"Richie Ashburn said being with Joe would be the most fun I ever had," Zimmer would say two years later. "I wish Richie was alive so I could tell him he was right."

[+] EnlargeDon Zimmer and Joe Torre
Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive/Getty ImagesJoe Torre's bold bench coach, Don Zimmer, rewrote his legacy with the Yanks in the late '90s, thanks to a gift from the baseball gods.

Zimmer would be Torre's co-pilot on a journey nobody saw coming, not after the thrice-fired manager was hired by George Steinbrenner in the fall of 1995 and was greeted by a screaming tabloid headline that called him "Clueless Joe." Torre pulled Zimmer out of semi-retirement to be his bench coach, and their partnership turned out to be baseball's answer to Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon.

"When Joe asked me to work for him, I didn't know him well," Zimmer would say. "But I knew three weeks in he'd become one of the special people in my life. Joe's had a lot to do with why I haven't retired again."

Zimmer was having too much fun to quit, too much fun watching Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera grow into first-ballot Hall of Famers and centerpieces of the Yankees' last dynasty. Whenever Joe Torre, or Joe Cool, was sitting too comfortably in the dugout, playing things by the book, the riverboat gambler inside Zimmer would emerge in full force, compelling the manager to get the baserunners moving, to call for a squeeze, something, anything, to catch the opponent off guard.

"We had a perfect marriage," Torre once said.

Perfect enough to win four World Series titles in their first five years together. With his Popeye arms and bulging cheeks and unconventional plans of attack, Zimmer was seen as a beloved -- if eccentric -- uncle and one with a clear favorite nephew: Jeter.

The bench coach would hold the shortstop's bat in the dugout, and Jeter would come over and rub his bald head for good luck. Not long after Jeter's signature flip play against the Oakland A's in the 2001 American League Division Series, a play some corners of Yankeedom swore had been practiced, Zimmer shot down those who were skeptical of the claim. He said the Yanks had interns running the bases during a defensive drill one spring when a right fielder overthrew both of his cutoff men, stopping Zimmer and Torre in their tracks.

"We looked at each other and said, 'What are we going to do if that happens in the game?'" Zimmer would say. "Well, there's not going to be a play at second or third; what's the shortstop doing? We found a spot for him."

A character to the nth degree, Zimmer was in the middle of everything. He once went nose to nose with Mariano Duncan in the clubhouse after the second baseman had a heated exchange with another Zim favorite, Joe Girardi. In 1999, while filling in for Torre during the manager's battle with prostate cancer, Zimmer feuded with Steinbrenner over his handling of Hideki Irabu. During the '99 Yanks-Mariners brawl that featured Jeter and good friend Alex Rodriguez play-fighting on the periphery, a scene that infuriated Jeter teammate Chad Curtis, Zimmer got all but trampled under a pile of players who were throwing real punches.

Four years later, Zimmer was the 72-year-old raging bull who charged Pedro Martinez in the middle of the ALCS and who ended up being thrown hard to the Fenway Park grass. Paramedics later lifted him onto a white stretcher, strapped him down at the shoulders, waist and knees and loaded him into a waiting ambulance. Martinez would say years later that Zimmer wanted to punch him in the mouth and said something disparaging about his mother, a claim the old coach vehemently denied. Asked what his intentions were when making his run at Martinez, Zimmer deadpanned, "I sure wasn't going over there to kiss him."

He kept throwing haymakers at Steinbrenner on behalf of his guy, Torre. In 2003, Zimmer was out the door for good and, ultimately, on his way to Tampa Bay, where he served the Rays as a senior adviser. The news that Zimmer had died at 83 Wednesday night hit the game hard, especially in the Bronx, where Girardi teared up when talking about the man who managed him in Chicago and mentored him in New York.

At his locker, Jeter told reporters that he found out about Zimmer's death halfway through the Yankees' 7-4 loss to Oakland. "I can sit here and talk to you for days about Zim," the captain said. He mentioned how much fun Zimmer was to have around.

"It's a tough one," Jeter said.

A tough one to take about one of the toughest guys in sports.

Zimmer was tough enough to survive a 1953 beaning that left him in a coma and forced doctors to drill holes on both sides of his skull to relieve pressure on his brain and to survive a 1956 beaning that left him with a detached retina. He was tough enough to help the Brooklyn Dodgers win it all in 1955 and to make it through 66 professional seasons as a player, coach and counselor.

"I hired him as a coach," Torre said in a statement Wednesday night, "and he became like a family member to me."

A family member who forever stood up for his own. Zimmer would say that Torre reminded him of Gil Hodges and Walter Alston, men who could be firm and gentle at the same time. He would also say that Torre did more managing in the early years in the Bronx than he was ever given credit for.

"Joe doesn't just sit back and watch," Zimmer said. "Look at the playoffs. How many managers would have the nerve to pinch hit for [Wade] Boggs, to pinch hit for Paul O'Neill, to sit Tino Martinez for [Cecil Fielder] against the Braves? Those were three of the damnedest things I've seen a manager do."

Torre was willing to take those high-stakes risks, in part because his bench coach empowered him to be bold. In the end, Don Zimmer had a big hand in the making of a Yankees dynasty. The baseball gods owed him that much.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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