ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Don Zimmer wasn’t a fixture in baseball forever. It just seemed that way.
He played alongside Jackie Robinson on the only Brooklyn Dodgers team to win the World Series. He coached Derek Jeter on the New York Yankees’ latest dynasty. And his manager once was the illustrious Casey Stengel.
For 66 years, Zimmer was a most popular presence at ballparks all over, a huge chaw often filling his cheek. Everyone in the game seemed to know him, and love him.
Zimmer was still working for the Tampa Bay Rays as a senior adviser when he died Wednesday at 83 in a hospital in nearby Dunedin. He had been in a rehabilitation center since having seven hours of heart surgery in mid-April.
“Great baseball man. A baseball lifer. Was a mentor to me,” teary-eyed Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
Zimmer started out as a minor league infielder in 1949, hitting powerful shots that earned him the nickname “Popeye.” He went on to enjoy one of the longest-lasting careers in baseball history.
Zimmer played on the original New York Mets, saw his Boston Red Sox beaten by Bucky Dent’s playoff homer and got tossed to the ground by Pedro Martinez during a brawl.
Oh, the tales he could tell.
“Zim was around when I first came up. He was someone that taught me a lot about the game — he’s been around, he’s pretty much seen everything,” Jeter said after the Yankees lost to Oakland 7-4. “His stories, his experiences.”
With the champion Yankees, Zimmer was Joe Torre’s right-hand man as the bench coach.
“I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me. He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game,” Torre said in a statement.
“The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life ... We loved him. The game of baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man,” he said.