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Kaat: Longtime pal Zimmer was a baseball treasure

Former big league pitcher remembers 54 years of friendship with MLB icon

Many of the tributes to Don Zimmer were about his days as Joe Torre's beloved bench coach or as a manager, or more recently as an advisor to the Rays.

In 1960, I spent the winter in St. Petersburg, Fla., after having played in the instructional league that took place there. Most of us got part-time jobs then to make ends meet. My job was with the St. Pete Recreation Department, coaching youth teams. I also had a chance to participate in some adult recreation leagues, and two of the teams I played on were a slow-pitch softball team and a men's basketball team. Both were sponsored by a local builder. Our team was Mitchell Homes. One of my teammates was Don Zimmer. Zim and I were teammates for four winters and never lost a game in either sport. Former Major Leaguer Hal Lanier was also on our teams.

That's where my 54-year relationship with Popeye and Soot -- his wife Jean -- began. Soot and their two young children, Tommy and Donna, attended almost every game. Zim was a fine athlete. He played guard on our basketball team and I played forward. One night I grabbed a rebound, turned around and Zim was way down the court. I threw it to him and he made an easy layup. I told him to just linger near half court, and when I got a rebound I would just heave it toward the other end of the court so that Zim could make an easy layup. He scored 60 points that night! Our coach was Jimmy Mann, the local sportswriter. He wrote a story about Zim's achievement the next day and made it look like Zim was hitting all kinds of long-range baskets. To my knowledge, Zim still had that article in his wallet!

Most of you know Zim had a reputation for putting a shekel or two on a horse race or a dog race. Derby Lane was a hotbed of dog racing in St. Pete, and Zim was a faithful wagerer. When our games started at 6:30, Coach Mann -- who also loved the races -- would watch the clock carefully. Not the game clock, the real clock. He would call timeout at about 6:50 so he could dash to the hallway and bet the daily double for the two of them. No cell phones, only pay phones.

Those were the days I also found out what a promising player Zim was with some very impressive Minor League stats. In 1950, for the Hornell Dodgers in the Pony League, this was Zim's batting line: .315 batting average, 146 runs scored, 34 doubles, five triples, 23 home runs, 122 RBIs and 63 stolen bases -- all in 123 games. Not until Andruw Jones was coming through the Braves' farm system in the mid 1990s did anyone have a Minor League season that productive. The next August -- the 16th, to be exact -- he and Soot were married at home plate between games of a doubleheader at Dunn Field in Elmira, N.Y. An avid Elmira fan named Carmella sent me a picture of Zim and Soot in their wedding attire. I have had it sitting on my desk ever since and still see it every day.

When Zim became Torre's bench coach, it was quite a bonus for me, as I covered the Yankees on their cable network all the years he was there. I was able to glean a lot of usable tidbits from Zim for our telecasts, and I always made sure if it was OK if I mentioned them on the air. Zim never wanted any credit for giving Joe a little advice that would work out well for the Yankees. One example was the nine stolen bases in a row catcher Joe Girardi had in 1996 in his first year with the Yankees. Zim knew of Joe's ability to steal bases from their days together with the Cubs and Rockies, and he would watch intently when Joe was on base, then nudge Joe in the ribs and say, "Good time to send him …"

Another memory we got a chuckle out of is a little self-serving of me, but we needed one win to clinch the pennant in 1965 when I was pitching for the Minnesota Twins. I had a 2-1 lead with two out in the ninth and Zim was the batter. He struck out on a curve in the dirt. When we saw each other next, he grinned and said, "Pal, you knew if it had a wrinkle in it and it was close to the plate, I'd be swinging." The significance of the at-bat was, we both thought it was his last at-bat in the big leagues, because he went to Japan to play in 1966. However, he had two more the last weekend of the season.

"That was at the core of Zim -- to make everyone feel like they were his best friend."

When Zim came into New York with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006, I sought him out and said I was retiring after the season and didn't know if our paths would cross often after that. As tough as Zim was on the outside, he was such a softie at heart. As we walked out of the visitors' clubhouse, he put his arm around me and had a tear or two in his eyes and said, starting with the same preface he tended to use when he spoke to almost everyone: "Pal, I want you to know you're one of the best friends I have in this game." I have a feeling there are thousands of former players, managers, coaches and baseball people at all levels that Zim may have said the same thing to. That was at the core of Zim -- to make everyone feel like they were his best friend.

He never got to fulfill his promise as a player because of the beanings, and he won't be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Don Zimmer was a baseball treasure to all of us, and I am so fortunate to have met him and developed a friendship with him on those fields and courts in St. Pete 54 years ago.

Jim Kaat is a contributor to He pitched in the big leagues for 25 seasons and is an award-winning broadcaster.
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