I'll never forget seeing Don Zimmer for the first time.
It was the year 1983. Zimmer was coaching third base for the Yankees; I was still a kid, but I took one look at "Popeye" and thought this guy is baseball.
He had that look of a "lifer" even then. It turns out that's exactly what Zimmer would end up being. Lucky for baseball.
It also turned out that Zimmer would end up in Chicago the very next year. That year, 1984, still holds my favorite Cubs team and it's memories. One of those memories was the "Sandberg Game." I will never forget the enthusiastic reception Zim gave Sandberg as he rounded third base after his second game-tying homer off of then-invincible Bruce Sutter.
Zimmer would end up returning to Chicago along with his high school pal Jim Frey in 1988, this time as the Cubs manager.
I had my doubts at the time, as Zimmer wasn't known as a wildly successful skipper. Even worse, he was known for being the leader of the Red Sox massive collapse in 1978. But when Frey returned to Chicago to be the GM, everyone knew he would reach out to Zimmer somehow. Paul Sullivan recapped the conversation between the old friends.
“Jimmy said, ‘You want to manage the Cubs?’” Zimmer recalled. “And I think I made one statement to him: ‘Who in the hell who has a uniform on wouldn’t want to manage the Cubs?’”
The following year of 1989 ended up being pretty magical. The Cubs unexpectedly won the National League East crown behind Zimmer's unorthodox (to say the least) managerial style. That team was eventually coined "The Boys of Zimmer". Zimmer ended up capturing the NL Manager of the Year award.
Cubs fans loved Zim, and he loved them back.
There were three reasons I took the (Cubs) job. The Cubs fans, they’re the best. The ballpark, it’s something special. And Jim Frey.”
Suicide squeezes and bases-loaded hit-and-runs were in play, and he could do no wrong that year it seemed. I was never really a huge fan of his style as a manager, but boy, what a baseball man Zimmer was.
"Popeye" posted a three-year record of 247-239 as the Cubs skipper. A free agent spending spree the previous winter put some pressure on him to win in 1991. It didn't happen out of the gate, and Zimmer then unwisely took on Trib executive and team honcho Don Grenesko publicly, pretty much demanding an extension or else.
Or else happened of course.
Zimmer was involved with too many teams to list in his 66 years. However, I will always remember him as a Yankee and a Cub. Maybe even remember him taking on Mario Soto in 1984 and then unfortunately Pedro Martinez in 2003.
Ultimately, I will always remember him as I first saw him, as the face of baseball.
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