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posted: 6/8/2014 4:01 PM

Respect, admiration for Zimmer grew over the years

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  • Don Zimmer

       Don Zimmer
    Rick West | Staff Photographer


I knew him first as a loser.

My household loved the 1978 Red Sox. The great 1975 World Series wasn't far enough removed yet to be just another emblem of failure. The '86 collapse was but a glint in a young Bill Buckner's eye.

That '78 team was murderous. Jim Rice was feared like no other hitter I'd ever seen. I was watching on a Monday Night Baseball broadcast when the Kansas City Royals employed a four-man outfield against him. He doubled off the wall.

Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans, Carl Yastrzemski. Six players hit at least 17 home runs.

That team slugged its way to a 14-game lead in late July. Then they blew it all to the Yankees -- and lost Game 163 on a homer by Bucky Dent.

Don Zimmer was in charge of the whole thing.

He caught a lot of blame in my house.

Some kid named Bobby Sprowl had started a big game against the Yankees instead of Bill "Spaceman" Lee because Zimmer and Lee hated each other. They were like Bill Walton and John Wooden, but without that part where they actually made it work. Lee called Zimmer "The Gerbil" -- and that was that.

Third baseman Butch Hobson played the whole year with bone chips in his throwing elbow and committed 43 errors. That remains the second most by anyone in a single season since 1951.

But Zimmer stuck with him. He loved Hobson's toughness -- and his bat.

Hobson could not throw the ball across the infield without pain and potential disaster.

But Zimmer stood by him. Loyalty mattered. Eight-year-old Matt Spiegel just didn't get it.

In 1992, when Hobson was named manager in Boston, Zimmer was hired to be his bench coach. Hobson didn't listen to him and eventually even stopped talking to him. Butch wasn't too bright.

Zimmer quit, and he was hired a few months later to sit next to Joe Torre in New York. That worked out okay.

Look at this week around the game. Zimmer was beloved by every organization he ever worked for.

It is true testament to the man to see this volume of team-specific tributes.

The Cubs held a moment of silence this week for the skipper of their 1989 division winner.

So did the Yankees. So did the Rangers. So did the Giants, as they hosted the Mets. He coached for the Giants and was an original 1962 Met.

So did the Dodgers. Vin Scully waxed rhapsodic and told wonderful stories about the "most beloved Dodger amongst his teammates."

The Tampa Rays held a tribute Thursday and then a pregame ceremony Saturday. It will be as close as Zimmer gets to a funeral, which he did not want. And of course it happens in a ballpark. You know by now that he got married in one.

The Red Sox will probably do something next week when they return to Fenway.

Don Zimmer won 97, 99, and 91 games between 1977 and '79, and had nothing to show for it in terms of pennants.

At the time, I'd thought of him as just another loser.

Then you live your life for a while, you learn the game a bit and you realize the amount of daily failure inherent in both of them.

He won more than 800 games as a manager. He lost more than 800.

He played with, coached or managed 1,254 players, including 28 of the 211 Major League Baseball Hall of Famers.

He spent 66 years at the ballpark.

Zimmer was always in the game, loved it deeply and it clearly loved him back.

Could anybody ask for more?

• Matt Spiegel co-hosts "The McNeil & Spiegel Show" 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Friday on WSCR 670-AM. Follow him on Twitter @mattspiegel670.

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