In the 1990s, when the New York Yankees won more than anybody else but not enough for owner George Steinbrenner, after one particular loss the owner ordered every member of the coaching and training staffs and manager Joe Torre upstairs to his office at Yankee Stadium. As many as two dozen people sat and stood around the room, their heads drooped, knowing the lashing that was about to come. Steinbrenner didn't disappoint them with his fury.
"We have to do better," Steinbrenner said. "All of us. If there is anybody in this room who thinks they are doing everything they can to help the Yankees win, you can leave right now."
Don Zimmer got up out of his chair and walked out on Steinbrenner. The rest of the room managed to suppress both gasps and laughter.
Zimmer's wife, Soot, who had been waiting in the lobby and was expecting the usual lengthy Steinbrenner summit, knew it meant only one thing to see her husband get off the elevator so soon after the meeting began.
"You've been fired!"
Zimmer wasn't fired. He survived the walkout but maintained a simmering feud with the Boss, eventually citing Steinbrenner as the reason he quit as a Yankees coach after the 2003 season.
Zimmer, who died Wednesday at the age of 83, was always one-of-a-kind. Whether literally standing up to Steinbrenner or working as a player, coach or manager for 14 major league organizations, Zimmer led one of the most epic baseball lives in the history of the game. The very ubiquitous nature of the man -- he was an eyewitness to baseball history unlike anyone else -- and the cherubic face atop the squat body made him at times seem more fictional than fact, with strains of Woody Allen's Zelig, Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump, George Lucas' Yoda and Milne's Pooh.
What kept him going all these years to all these places was one of the deepest loves of baseball the game ever has known. Baseball to Zim was right there with carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur as the most common elements of life. He liked to say that he was proud to never have taken a job outside the sport -- every paycheck he earned was through baseball.
To talk with Zim for any length of time at any stage of his long baseball journey was to immediately see his love for the game. It was there when he was married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., in 1951 to a girl he had been dating since 10th grade. It was there when Derek Jeter would tell Zim to hold his bat in the Yankee dugout between at-bats for good luck. And it was there when Zim cried at a press conference in 2003 in Boston, the day after he left Fenway Park in an ambulance after Pedro Martinez had pushed the old man to the ground in what was about to become a bench-clearing brawl between the Yankees and Red Sox. The sight of a hatless Zimmer rolling to the turf stopped everybody in their tracks before mayhem broke out. Zimmer turned out to be just fine, but he was moved to tears that next day because of the harm his actions brought to the game.
Zimmer met Babe Ruth (in 1947), was a teammate of Jackie Robinson (1954-56) and played for Casey Stengel (1962). He was in uniform for some of the most iconic teams in history: the team that lost the most games ('62 Mets) and the team, including postseason play, that won the most games ('98 Yankees). He was in uniform for the only World Series championship for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1955), one of the most famous World Series home runs (Carlton Fisk's shot in 1975), one of the most famous regular season home runs (Bucky Dent in 1978), the Pine Tar Game (1983), the first night game at Wrigley Field (1988), the first game in Rockies history (1993), and all three perfect games thrown at Yankee Stadium (Don Larsen, David Wells and David Cone).
He almost didn't live long enough to see any of it. Baseball, his great love, nearly killed him. In 1953, at age 22, while playing for St. Paul in Double A, Zimmer was hit in the head with a pitch. He underwent surgery in which doctors drilled four holes in his skull. He was told that his career was probably over.
Zimmer liked to joke that all the people were wrong when they insulted his managerial skills by saying he had a hole in his head. "That's not right," he would say. "I have four."
The holes actually would be filled in with an element called Tantalum, an element that was recognized as a distinct element (number 73) in 1844. It was named after Tantalus, a character of Greek mythology who was condemned to stand in a pool of water with the branches of a fruit-bearing tree just above him. The fruit always remained just out of reach and the water would always recede just when Tantalus stooped to drink it. It is from the plight of Tantalus that we get the word "tantalize."
The extraordinary baseball life of Don Zimmer is the inverse of the life of Tantalus. To live such a rich life is to grab the luscious fruit and to drink the cool water.