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updated: 6/4/2014 11:49 PM

Don Zimmer: With all due respect, a baseball man

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  • In this Sept. 30, 1989 file photo, Cubs manager Don Zimmer sits in the dugout before a game against the Cardinals in St. Louis. Zimmer, a popular fixture in professional baseball for 66 years as a manager, player, coach and executive, died Wednesday. He was 83.

      In this Sept. 30, 1989 file photo, Cubs manager Don Zimmer sits in the dugout before a game against the Cardinals in St. Louis. Zimmer, a popular fixture in professional baseball for 66 years as a manager, player, coach and executive, died Wednesday. He was 83.
    Associated Press File

 
 

The first morning of my very first spring training, I walked into Don Zimmer's office so early that he wasn't even dressed yet.

Wanted to impress the man.

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The problem is my first question was about a player unhappy with a contract, threatening to come to camp late.

"That's the first (bleeping) question you ask me?" Zimmer yelled. "Who the (bleep) do you think you are? Go ask the (bleeping) general manager."

I apologized, got up, walked out and thought about what I might want to do for a living.

As I stood around on the field pondering my next career move, about an hour later Zimmer came out to greet the TV cameras and radio microphones.

The first question was exactly what I had asked. Uh-oh, I thought, this is going to be bad.

"Well," Zimmer said, "when he gets here I'm sure everything will be fine."

I stood dumbfounded as he politely discussed the situation. He then saw me through the crowd, laughed and said, "Gotcha."

When the reporters dispersed, Zimmer grabbed me and walked me down the first-base line. He stopped, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "All I ask is that you treat me with respect, treat my team with respect and respect the game, and we will treat you with respect."

And that's how it went. The man treated me like a king.

Former Cubs manager Don Zimmer died Wednesday in Dunedin, Fla., at the age of 83. He had been hospitalized since undergoing heart-valve surgery in April. He leaves behind his wife of 63 years, Soot, many children and grandchildren, and thousands of baseball friends.

"I've been talking to his wife for several weeks and the situation was bad," former Cubs GM Jim Frey said from his home in Baltimore late Wednesday night. "Every time I talked to her, things weren't getting better and he was really suffering."

The Zimmers were inseparable from the time they were high school sweethearts. Don married Soot at home plate before a Class-A game in Elmira, N.Y., in 1951.

"Soot didn't sound good," Frey said. "Don went in for a heart operation that was successful, but while he was in there he had a problem with his lungs, and then they said his kidneys weren't working right. It was terrible."

Frey was Zimmer's best friend for 70 years, going back to their days as teammates in Knothole Baseball when they were about 13 in Cincinnati. Zimmer was Frey's third-base coach when the Cubs won their first title of any kind in 39 years in 1984, and as GM, Frey hired Zimmer to manage, the pair again winning a division title with "The Boys of Zimmer" in 1989.

"We did everything together, even started dating our wives at the same time and still married to the same girls," Frey said. "We worked well together because we were friends. Also, I had been a manager and as GM I never told him what to do as manager."

In 1991, I was sitting with Zimmer in Houston in May when I asked him about his contract situation, since he was in his final year. That wasn't that unusual in those days, and Zimmer wasn't concerned.

But Cubs president Don Grenesko told me that Zimmer would be evaluated at the end of the season. When Zimmer read that quote, he marched up to Grenesko's office and told him that if he wasn't informed of his status by June 1, he would manage the rest of the season but he would not return in 1992.

Frey begged Zimmer to reconsider. He would not. Grenesko ordered Frey to fire Zimmer 10 days later in New York.

"The Tribune Co. told me if I didn't fire him, they would fire him," Frey said. "They told me the same thing the year before, but this time I couldn't talk them out of it. Bad day for me, bad day for him, bad day for the Cubs."

I always felt bad about that, but Zimmer insisted it was inevitable because of what he called "the Corporate Cubs." He offered me absolution, but I'll always remember sitting in that suite in the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, watching him pace back and forth and tell the story of what happened.

"We had so much fun working together, and winning together with the Cubs," Frey said, breaking down in tears. "Don, to me, was a unique guy. His life was all baseball. He loved the game and he wanted it played a certain way. He had great respect for how things should be done in baseball.

"He lived his life the way he wanted to live it. I was privileged to have spent so much of my life with him."

Zimmer worked 66 years in baseball, an amazing record for a man who spoke the truth. His last role was as senior adviser to the Tampa Bay Rays.

"He was a very caring individual, despite that gruff exterior. He had a magical heart," said Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, who was the Cubs media-relations director when Zimmer was manager. "One of the great baseball people of all time. Took the time to help people and teach people.

"He was wrong sometimes, like all of us, but he loved the game and always wanted what was best for the game. He cared deeply about the game and what would happen to it."

In their Hall of Fame speeches, both Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson thanked Zimmer, Dawson saying, "He's a man who really loved the game … a man who's given his whole life to baseball."

A couple of months ago, Joe Girardi told me about his stops with Zimmer in Chicago, Colorado and New York.

"Everywhere I went, Zim was there, and it wasn't a coincidence. I ended up spending 10 of my first 11 years in the big leagues with Zim," Girardi said. "It was a real treat to spend so much time with him, and he was such a big part of my career."

Zimmer could be tough on reporters, and I'm sure not all have fond memories of him, but I loved the guy. He was tough, but fair, and all he asked was respect. When he didn't get it, he wasn't a sweetheart.

I saw Zimmer last in Tampa in 2008 when the White Sox faced the Rays in the postseason, and I spoke to him last in April 2011, though it doesn't seem like that long ago.

His health was not good -- two knee replacements, a serious back injury and a stroke -- but his spirits were high as he celebrated his 80th birthday and 60 years of marriage.

"When you get to be my age, every year's a big one," he laughed. "It gets tougher as you get up in this territory. You got a lot of miles on you and stuff breaks down. You can't stop that."

Even then, his dislike for the corporate owners of the Cubs hadn't changed.

"Best job I ever had. Most fun I ever had," Zimmer said. "It's a long time ago, but it still is a sad thing to me. Things could have been done a lot different. A lot of people got hurt."

Still, Zimmer was so grateful for baseball.

"Think of the life I've had in baseball and what I would have had without it," he said. "I must be the second luckiest man ever on Earth."

My old friend ended the conversation after only a couple of minutes. He was not feeling well.

"It's OK. I'm still ticking," Zimmer said. "We'll catch up another time."

As it turns out, we did not.

Rest in peace, my friend. Here's hoping you find a game to watch real soon.

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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