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Emotional Rays reflect on Zimmer's impact

ST. PETERSBURG -- Over 56 seasons as a Major League player, coach and manager, Don Zimmer wore 14 different uniforms, but none of them longer than the Tampa Bay jersey that hung in front of the Rays' home clubhouse late Wednesday night.

Zimmer, a Rays senior baseball advisor, passed away Wednesday after 66 years in professional baseball. He was 83.

The Rays will honor the baseball legend with a moment of silence at Thursday's game at Tropicana Field, and the club also will conduct a special pregame ceremony before Saturday's game. On Wednesday night, however, the Rays honored Zimmer with their words as they shared what he meant to them during his 11 years with the organization.

"It's all of our loss. Zim was a great man, and there's really no words to explain what he brought to us and what he meant to me," Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It's just been a rough go for us, and this kind of puts the icing on the cake, so to speak. I know that he would want us to continue on and just kind of honor him by doing all of the things that he preached to us: playing the game the right way, playing the game hard and going out there on a daily basis and really caring about this organization and what he meant to us. I could sit here and talk about him all day. It's just a rough night for us."

The Rays received word of Zimmer's passing during Wednesday's 5-4 loss to the Marlins. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said he found out around the third inning and told his coaches, many of whom were especially close with Zimmer. After the game, an emotional Maddon said he attempted to address the players about the loss of their friend.

"The amount of time he's put in his lifetime to this game of baseball, it's remarkable," Rays left-hander David Price said. "He always lit everybody's faces up whenever he would walk in, especially in Spring Training. I had my fair share of talks with him over my seven years of being here, and he is somebody that we're definitely going to miss. It's tough to swallow right now. ... He's somebody that we're definitely going to dearly miss."

Longoria would often sit and talk with Zimmer in the Rays' dugout or in the seats behind home plate. He said they would talk about "everything," and Zimmer never hesitated to offer advice, criticism or a laugh.

"He's taken a lot of players under his wing in his time. I think bigger than me or bigger than anybody is what he meant to this game, what kind of a person he was and how he'll be remembered ultimately is for that," Longoria said. "What he brought to this organization, to the Yankees, to the Red Sox, to the Cubs, the Dodgers, every organization that he represented, it was all good. His family has a lot to be proud of, and we have a lot to be thankful for.

"When it came down to it, he always knew the right things to say. He was always there, whether it was good or bad. I know that we felt like he was a small part of our family and a larger part of this organization."

Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, described Zimmer on Wednesday afternoon as a "tremendous friend, mentor, resource" ever since Friedman joined the organization. Zimmer's incredible baseball career, from the day he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949 through his eight years as the bench coach for Yankees manager Joe Torre, gave him a wealth of knowledge and experience that few others could offer.

"The things that he's gone through in this game are things that very few people who've walked the earth have ever experienced," Friedman said.

"Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said in a statement. "Don dedicated his life to the game he loved, and his impact will be felt for generations to come. His contributions to this organization are immeasurable. I am proud that he wore a Rays uniform for the past 11 years. We will miss him dearly."

Following through on an idea engineered by Maddon and Rays vice president of communications Rick Vaughn, third-base coach Tom Foley began wearing Zimmer's No. 66 jersey on May 23 as a tribute to the baseball icon.

The same white jersey hung on a black hanger in the front of Tampa Bay's clubhouse Wednesday night, a tribute to a baseball lifer who meant more to the game than the Rays could explain.

"We're just going to miss him," Foley said. "We have been missing him and we were hoping he'd get back and get well. He's going to be missed. Touched a lot of lives. He had a lot to give. He had a lot to offer. And he did."

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.

Tampa Bay Rays