Rozner: The Zimmer conversation and the Cubs' unraveling

  • Manager Don Zimmer returns from the locker room to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd after the National League East champion Cubs defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-1 in the final regular season game Sept. 24, 1989, at Wrigley Field.

    Manager Don Zimmer returns from the locker room to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd after the National League East champion Cubs defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-1 in the final regular season game Sept. 24, 1989, at Wrigley Field. Associated Press

  • Cubs manager Don Zimmer jokes with San Francisco Giants manager Roger Craig before the start of the National League playoffs Oct. 4, 1989, at Wrigley Field.

    Cubs manager Don Zimmer jokes with San Francisco Giants manager Roger Craig before the start of the National League playoffs Oct. 4, 1989, at Wrigley Field. Associated Press

  • Columnist Barry Rozner catches up with Don Zimmer before Game 3 of the American League Division Series between the White Sox and Tampa in October 2008 at U.S. Cellular Field.

    Columnist Barry Rozner catches up with Don Zimmer before Game 3 of the American League Division Series between the White Sox and Tampa in October 2008 at U.S. Cellular Field. RICK WEST | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/7/2021 10:39 AM

On the night of May 8, 1991, after a Cubs loss in Houston, I walked into the visiting manager's office at the Astrodome.

Since we were alone, and after discussing that evening's events with Don Zimmer, I asked the Cubs manager if he had thought at all about his expiring contract, given that at about the same time the year before, the Tribune Co. had extended both Zimmer and GM Jim Frey.

 

One-year deals were not a big deal in those days and Zimmer said he hadn't even thought about it yet. On the off day, I wrote about it and quoted team president Don Grenesko as saying Zimmer would be evaluated at the end of the season, just like everyone else.

Eleven days later, after a Sunday night game in Philadelphia, I sat in the back seat of a rental car and worked on another off-day story -- pondering Zimmer's future after an ugly weekend of baseball -- while Ron Santo and Bob Brenly manned the front.

We were off to Atlantic City for 24 hours of stupidity.

Early on Tuesday morning, we drove to New York City to get a few hours of sleep before a night game at Shea Stadium. I wasn't in my room long when media relations director Sharon Pannozzo called and said a New York radio station was reporting Zimmer had been at the ballpark and cleaned his out his locker in the visiting manager's office.

Zimmer had been fired.

Now, what I didn't know was Zimmer had read the Grenesko quote 10 days earlier, marched up to Grenesko's office at Wrigley Field, thrown the Daily Herald on the desk in front of the team president, and told Grenesko that if he wasn't informed of his status by June 1, he would manage the rest of 1991, but he would not return in 1992 under any circumstances.

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

The rest of that day was pretty wild.

The three beat writers met in the lobby. We were about to head for the subway and we were hoping to catch Zimmer at Shea, when Andy Bagnato of the Tribune stopped in his tracks and suggested we call Zimmer's room. Joe Goddard of the Sun-Times got on the house phone and sure enough, Zimmer was already back at the Grand Hyatt.

That was a huge break.

Up to his suite we went and that's when Zimmer began to tell us the story. As he paced back and forth in the big room, every other sentence began with, "When Barry came to me in Houston …," as Bagnato and Goddard stared at me.

I was stunned that I had played some role in this, but I was simply doing my job, asking some obvious questions.

The result was probably inevitable anyway as Grenesko had no use for Zimmer and Zimmer had no use for Grenesko -- or any of the corporate execs.

Before we left his suite and headed for the train to Shea Stadium, Goddard asked Zimmer if he was going to empty the minibar. Zimmer said he didn't drink, but encouraged us to plunder. Said Zimmer, "Take it all. Tribune is paying for it."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So, we did just that. I still have a tiny bottle of tequila from that day.

We got to the yard at about game time, or four hours later than usual, and on a whim late that night -- while writing six or seven stories -- I called the Grand Hyatt to see if Iowa (AAA) manager Jim Essian had checked in. He had. When he answered the phone, I asked him if he was the new manager.

"Looking for the scoop, huh?" Essian said. "See you tomorrow."

I had my answer.

What followed was truly absurd. Essian had no chance in 1991 with a coaching staff that didn't want him, a team with too many injuries and a bad bullpen. It went off the rails.

By October, Essian, Frey and Grenesko had all been fired, and that led to the short Stan Cook/Larry Himes era -- and the departure of Greg Maddux -- which led to the Andy MacPhail regime. After Ed Lynch, Jim Hendry and a dose of Crane Kenney, new owner Tom Ricketts fired Hendry and brought in Theo Epstein, who accomplished what those before him had been unable to.

It all started in Houston with a relatively innocuous pair of conversations 30 years ago this week, one with Zimmer and one with Grenesko. For 20 years after, Zimmer began every conversation with, "Well, you got me fired, now what do you want?"

He was kidding. Mostly. I think. He did, at least, offer absolution.

When Zimmer died in 2014, I asked Frey about those crazy 10 days as Zimmer and Grenesko played chicken.

"The Tribune Co. told me if I didn't fire him, they would fire him," said Frey, who died last year. "They (had) 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.

"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."

I last saw Zimmer during the 2008 postseason in Tampa when the White Sox faced the Rays, and I last spoke to him in April 2011.

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, not to mention 60-plus years in pro baseball.

"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 previous owner 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."

The conversation was short. He was not feeling well.

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

Turns out, we never had a chance, but I remember fondly those years, learning the game from some great baseball people.

Over 37 years, I have been privileged to be around hundreds of the biggest stars in the history of sports. I would argue that few were more interesting than Don Zimmer, and I'm sorry he's no longer around.

It would be great to hear him yell at me one more time.

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