Iconic Zimmer makes presence felt at Opening Day

ST. PETERSBURG — Don Zimmer still has fond memories of April 13, 1955.

Though he didn’t play for Brooklyn that day against Pittsburgh, Zimmer could never forget seeing teammates Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Gil Hodgers, Roy Campanella, Carl Erskine and others help the Dodgers win 6-1 that Wednesday at Ebbets Field.

That was Zimmer’s first opening fay, 58 years ago. Zimmer, 82, still can’t help but feel a special feeling to the sport.

“If Lou Gehrig is the luckiest man in the world, I’m the second luckiest,” Zimmer, a senior advisor for Tampa Bay, said prior to the club’s opener against Baltimore.

Zimmer also said the nerves still build up just as much as they used to.

“I’ve got the shakes,” Zimmer said with a smile, looking down at his hands before taking a humorous tone. “That’s every day. You’ve got to see me try to sign autographs — what a mess.”

Zimmer, who is entering his 65th year in professional baseball, started as a player, signing a contract with the Dodgers in 1949, eventually making his major league debut toward the end of the 1954 season.

He played 11 full seasons after that, suiting up for the Dodgers, Cubs, Mets, Reds and Senators before playing in Japan.

Zimmer returned as a coach for the Expos in 1971 before managing and coaching four different teams in the 70s and 80s, winning the 1989 National League manager of the year with the Cubs.

After managing his final season in 1991, Zimmer returned to coaching solely, serving most notably as a bench coach for the Yankees, winning four World Series titles.

For the last 10 years, Zimmer has worn the colors of the Rays and been a presence in the clubhouse and front office for the organization.

His contribution is far from an honorary member of the team, though.

Manager Joe Maddon said he regularly seeks out Zimmer’s advice if he is having trouble making a decision.

“I called him (this spring) about an idea and he totally abhorred the idea, which I love,” Maddon said. “I abandoned it at that moment. I love that kind of feedback of not being sugarcoated … He really speaks the strategy well still, and he helps me with different thoughts.”

Maddon said that the wisdom and history Zimmer brings to the club is invaluable.
“He’s one of the elder statesmen in the game now, and it’s justifiable to (call him iconic),” Maddon said. “He’s a great spokesman for the game. You’ve got to talk to these guys and hear what it was like to be on the field with Jackie Robinson, and what was Ebbets Field like. We talk about that kind of stuff a lot.”

These days, Zimmer, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch with his family Tuesday while receiving thunderous applause, isn’t too sure how many more opening days — or games in general — he will be able to take part in and wants to make the most of them with his wife, Soot.

“I’m struggling to walk, to do anything,” said Zimmer, who is on dialysis regularly. “I’m not in the best shape. But my wife, she’s done a great job… You just never know when it’s going to be the last.”

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