By Ernie Palladino
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Yankee Stadium fell silent for just a few moments before Thursday afternoon’s game against the A’s in memory of Don Zimmer.
Somehow, you have to feel there was a special something going on in those fleeting seconds as the crowd commemorated the passing of a baseball lifer. Zimmer was unique, you see, not just as someone who had done his variety of jobs pretty much full-time since 1949, but as an always colorful, often crusty, sometimes combative clubhouse presence throughout his 66 years in uniform.
He could be a huge source of comfort, too. Zim had a big heart, and he shared it in a big way with a once-young reporter so many years ago. He didn’t say much in the Yankees dugout moments after the cantankerous Billy Martin had thrown said scribe out of his office for taking him to task on a pitching point in the aftermath of the Pine Tar game. He simply listened to the reporter vent his youthful, silly spleen about how he wasn’t afraid of Martin, and how nobody, not even Reggie Jackson’s tormentor, was going to muscle him out of asking a question.
Zimmer had obviously heard a similar rant from others. Martin could easily crawl under the skins of newspaper guys who fell from his favor. There were many of those. But Zim was patient that sunny summer afternoon in 1983. When the reporter had finished, more out of breath than out of thoughts, Zimmer looked at him and said — nothing.
A large eye-roll was all that was needed. He was saying, “That’s Billy. Shake it off. Go back to work.”
Zimmer always made full use of his constitutional freedom of speech. Ask him a question, he’d give you an answer, and not a politically correct one, either. He didn’t suffer fools lightly. Horses? Loved them. Big patron of the race track.
He was a connoisseur of baseball, a guy who had done much and seen everything, including a way-too-close view of the afterlife as he lay six days in a coma after a minor league beaning in 1953. Why else do you think Joe Torre kept him around for eight years as a bench coach? He have been there a lot longer, too, had a feud with George Steinbrenner during the 2003 playoffs not gotten in the way.
Zimmer had been a strong, tough youngster. He turned into a strong, tough senior citizen, and grew especially rambunctious when his teammates came under attack. At the age of 72, when most people are golfing their way through retirement, Zimmer was still at it, and still as feisty as ever. Pedro Martinez can attest to that. Zim charged the Red Sox ace during a bench-clearing melee in Game 3 of the 2003 playoffs. The old bench coach lost that one, as Martinez flung him to the ground.
They hauled him away in a stretcher.
Even that wasn’t nearly as painful as a more figurative grounding he experienced as Boston’s manager in 1978. After blowing a 14 ½ game lead, his Red Sox and Yanks wound up in a playoff. He’d have gladly traded a Martinez-administered bruise or two in exchange for the damage Bucky Dent did to his legacy. That division-clinching homer over Fenway’s Green Monster earned the otherwise slap-hitting shortstop Zimmer’s personalized moniker, “Bucky F. Dent.”
The ‘F’ didn’t stand for Fred, by the way.
The Boston press called him “The Gerbil,” a rather unkind reference to his chubby cheeks. Brooklyn Dodger and Mets teammates called him “Popeye,” a far more generous nickname that stuck with him his whole career, because of the bulging muscles in his arms.
To one backup reporter, whose name Zimmer never really did get to know, he was the great comforter during a trying day.
Sometimes, an understanding eye-roll is all one needs to make things right again.
Baseball lost that when Zimmer left us Wednesday.
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