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Friday, June 6, 2014

Flaws and all, Zimmer stayed true to his first love

Alan Greenwood

Outside of sappy movies, love does not mean never having to say you are sorry; it really means never forcing your beloved to apologize.

Don Zimmer’s life in baseball stands as irrefutable evidence of this notion. ...

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Outside of sappy movies, love does not mean never having to say you are sorry; it really means never forcing your beloved to apologize.

Don Zimmer’s life in baseball stands as irrefutable evidence of this notion.

Baseball lifers in his mold grow scarcer by the hour. Few men have ever been so hurt by baseball and still show up before pitchers and catchers report, antsy in anticipation of another 60 years

Zimmer’s baseball life has been so well chronicled it is not necessary to reiterate it in great detail. He was a member of the only Brooklyn Dodgers World Series champions. At the other end of the boulevard, he played for the 1962 Mets, generally accepted as the worst Major League Baseball team ever fielded. He played in the minor leagues, coached in the minor leagues, managed in the minor leagues, and never whined about bus rides, cold showers or flea-bag motels.

Boston is where Zimmer endured his greatest pains, but not once did his allegiance to the game waver. His deepest bruises bookend his Boston experiences, but he would not allow anyone to suggest that he may have been better off elsewhere, even on the day that Bucky Dent’s three-run homer nestled softly into the screen, or the day that Pedro Martinez tossed him to the ground.

No other Red Sox manager matched, or could match, the sweet and the sour of Zimmer’s administration. His 1977 team was one of Boston’s most fun to watch. They walloped 213 home runs, including seven on a sizzling Fourth of July afternoon at Fenway. They won 97 games, not good enough to stop the Yankees from winning the division, but a remarkable feat for a club whose pitching was, for the most part, dreadful.

Suffice it to say that Bill Campbell, who we would now call a closer by trade, led the staff with 13 wins.

With a fortified pitching staff, Zimmer’s tenure hit its zenith one summer later. That peak flattened with one of the worst collapses in baseball history, and some folks don’t bother remembering that the Red Sox actually needed to end the season with eight straight wins just to give Mike Torrez and Dent a chance to leave their mark on Boston baseball history.

As Zimmer tells it, as he drove from Boston to his Florida home hours after the Red Sox’ 5-4 loss to the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1978, he pierced one long stretch of quiet with an impassioned growl that quickly became legend:

“Bucky (bleeping) Dent!”

His Red Sox never got that close again. During 1979 and 1980, New Englanders treated Zimmer to an unbridled tumble into a 10th circle of hell. Each time Zimmer’s head poked from the first-base dugout, the boos were beyond vicious. Radio talk show hosts lived off his infamy, and Zimmer made the self-destructive mistake of listening to them. Bill Lee once referred to him as “The Gerbil” and the epithet, as well as the white-hot loathing, stuck.

When he returned for a short stint as Butch Hobson’s bench coach in 1992, Opening Day warmth greeted Zimmer. When he was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2010, the standing ovation was long and raucous.

Not even the memory of his ill-advised tangle with Martinez, for which he promptly offered the only apology on record, muted the cheers.

Finally, Zimmer earned respect in Boston simply for being himself, with no fewer flaws or greater strengths than one might expect.

His love for the game was no less than the game’s love for him.

Alan Greenwood can be reached at 594-6427 or agreenwood
@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Greenwood on Twitter (@Telegraph_AlanG).