Don Zimmer will have his #66 retired by the Tampa Bay Rays in a pregame ceremonial before their home opener on April 6th. The Rays may not be the team most associated with Zimmer, but it was the organization that he spent the most time with, 11 seasons, during his 66 year career in baseball. Zimmer was a player, coach, or manager for nearly half of the teams in Major League Baseball. During his career he was a member of the Brooklyn/ Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, Washington Senators, San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers, Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies, New York Yankees, and Tampa Bay Devil Rays/ Rays. Zimmer also spent a season (1966) playing for the Toei Flyers in Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan.
Zimmer was never an elite player. He hit a career .235, with 91 home runs, 352 RBI. He played more than 100 games only five times during his 12 year career, and was named an All Star in 1961. As a manager Zimmer collected 885 wins in 13 seasons at the helm with four different teams. He won 50.8% of the games he managed. He won his lone Division title with the 1989 Cubs, but lost to the Giants four games to one in the National League Championship Series.
None of the statistics which are associated with Don Zimmer should put him in elite company. However, his longevity and passion for the game do. Few, if anything written about Zimmer reflects negatively on the man. Yes, the local media and fans may have grown tired of his struggles on the field and as manager, but never of his desire to see his team win. Even the incident with Pedro Martinez in 2003 during the American League Championship Series should be seen as Zimmer sticking up for his team, even if his body was not up to the task his brain had in mind. He was sticking up for the Yankees, his guys. His apology afterwards can make a grown man cry, because you can sense the embarrassment he felt as he apologizes to everyone, before he leaves the press conference in tears.
Hopefully, over time this moment will no longer be what most people think of when they think of Don Zimmer. His broad smile and love of the game were on display everyday he put on a uniform. He never had to work a day in his life. Zimmer was the type of person who have propelled baseball through the generations. They allow for a real connection to exist between the past and present. Zimmer’s contribution to the game goes beyond the stat sheet, thus the honor the Rays are giving him in retiring his jersey number is a tribute not only to Zimmer, but also to the other baseball lifers. It is these individuals who, despite not making the world stop and take notice of their accomplishments, are immeasurably important to the game.
Several of the other teams which Zimmer played or worked for during his career could retire his number. The Red Sox, Cubs, and Yankees could have all justified retiring his number, but ultimately it is good that at least one team did retire his number. Regardless how important he was to any single organization, Don Zimmer was more important to the game of baseball. Zimmer spent his life around the game he loved; along the way the game loved him back. Now thanks to the Tampa Bay Rays, he will be loved far into the future even once the people he worked with in baseball are gone. Baseball has shown the epitome of a baseball life the love that the game as a whole can give a man after he spent a life time loving the game.