NEW YORK -- Don Zimmer had a B on his bonnet when his name first became familiar to the baseball public, a white, old-English "B" on a bright blue background that one of his Brooklyn contemporaries, a fellow named Lasorda, incessantly identified as "Dodger Blue." When I met Zimmer some 22 years after his big league debut, he wore a different B, also old English but it was a navy letter on a red background. Although I watched him play at Ebbets Field in 1956, my lasting image of Zim is as the manager of the Red Sox.
A changing expression -- delighted and content morphing into dejected and concerned -- was quite evident just South of the Boston B throughout the final weeks of the 1978 season.
Zimmer seemingly was without care in July. His team was leading the American League East with a formidable .689 winning percentage on July 19. The Sox were nine games ahead of the second-place Brewers and 14 games ahead of the team that had won the two preceding division championships, the fourth-place Yankees.
Indeed, the Yankees, so troubled by so many obstacles at the time, were 2½ games from fifth place.* * * * *
Eleven years later, when Zimmer was managing the Cubs to a first-place finish, his team played a two-game series at Shea Stadium, on Labor Day and the day after. The dirge of 1978 had expired by then. He could speak about the Yankees' gallant charge and the Red Sox's maddening downfall without increasing his blood pressure to a dangerous level. And what he spoke of mostly that day was the effect of Ron Guidry.
"Guidry was a damn roadblock for us at the end," Zimmer said. "He beat us in Fenway in early September [in the Boston Massacre series], shut us out again in New York later in the month. And he won the Bucky [Dent] game. Three times in less than a month, and we finished second by one game.
"They talk about that Curse [of the Bambino]. I'll tell you what, there was a curse. It was me cursing that skinny damn lefty. He kicked our butt. We had a great offense, but not against him and that slider."
Moreover, teams with the Bs on their bonnets often were denied by the teams wearing pinstripes -- in the World Series in the 50's, years before Zim would begin his managerial career.
To add a few points to Zim's BP, there was this to recall: Guidry had beaten the Sox in June, too. The victory was his 12th en route to the 13-0 record he carried through July 4. And Guidry's overall numbers for September -- they excluded the Dent game, the 163 game played to determine the division championship -- included a 5-1 record and an 0.96 ERA in six starts and 46 2/3 innings. Guidry allowed 34 baserunners and struck out 36 batters in those games (And Jim Rice was the league's MVP?)
"It wasn't just the games he beat us down the stretch," Zimmer said. "He kept their heads above water the first half. We weren't taking a thing for granted with them -- they'd won the World Series the year before. But you get a lead like we had -- What was it, 14 games? -- plus we had two other teams in the division [the Brewers and Orioles] that won 90 [and the Tigers won 86]. The Yankees had to climb over some pretty good teams.
"But they stayed in it because of Guidry. They were a little better than .500 before they got turned around. It ain't easy to fall below .500 when one guy's 13-0."* * * *
Nearly 36 years have passed since Guidry earned that 13th victory. An assist from a Jeffrey Maier-type on a fly ball to Yankee Stadium's right-field wall hit by Mickey Rivers on July 2 made it possible. By 1989, Zimmer was unaware of the interference that favored the Yankees that day. Otherwise his BP might have spiked 11 years after the fact.
Now, on the day following Zimmer's death at age 83, the Yankees are a third-place team, six games from first place with a record one game over the break-even point following their 2-1 victory against the A's Thursday. They're not playing well. Injuries, lack of power and Russian-roulette relief have undermined their performance through 59 games.
Partially because the other teams in the division also are unremarkable, the Yankees are not out of it. Masahiro Tanaka is another factor in their staying close. As effectively as he has pitched to date, Tanaka isn't in the process of duplicating the 25-3, 1.74, Cy Young season Guidry produced in 1978. After beating the A's Thursday, he has a 9-1 record and 2.02 ERA n 12 starts.
But Tanaka unquestionably is prominently mentioned in any AL Cy Young Award conversation and, more important, he is is keeping the Yankees close enough that the first-place Blue Jays can detect the scent of pinstripes.
These Yankees don't match the pedigree of the Yankees of Thurman, Reggie, Randolph, Goose, Piniella, Nettles, Dent, Catfish, Figueroa, Lyle, Chambliss and Tidrow. But no member of the current AL East is the equal of any of the division's teams that won 90 or more games 36 years ago.
The Yankees have Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran back and -- for now -- functioning. Disabled CC Sabathia could play the returning hero role Catfish played in 1978 after a first half lost to injury. And Brian McCann, a vital component, is gradually emerging as the player the Yankees signed. And surely they'll do something to enhance their chances before the summer reaches its midpoint.
For sure, this not a prediction of a return to October. But these Yankees, with flaws conspicuous and age dogging them, can't be dismissed. Not yet. Zim would tell you so.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com.