When I hired Don Zimmer to be my bench coach before the 1996 season, my first as the Yankees' manager, his baseball career was still young—by his terms, anyway. He had worked in the game for 47 straight years at that point, a number that would end up at 66. I knew him casually, but I only had experience in the National League, and I was looking for someone with credibility who knew the American League. He had managed Boston and Texas (in addition to the Padres and the Cubs), and had coached with the Yankees. Little did I know that Zim would sit to my right, as my adviser and friend, for the four World Series we would win in our eight seasons together.
Before we started that first season, I wrote down some team rules I was thinking about instituting. I handed them to Zim for a first look. He got to the part that covered team travel, and he sort of hesitated. "Ties?" he asked. I decided to relax and only require that everyone wear sport coats. I later found out that Zim didn't know how to tie a tie. Soot—his beloved wife of 63 years, whom he married at home plate in a minor league park in Elmira, N.Y.—could do it for him before he left home, but return trips would have been an issue. When your lifelong office is a baseball diamond, you don't need that particular skill.
Since his death last week at the age of 83, Zim (near left, with me in 2000) has been remembered as many things: a storyteller, a wit, a teacher, a fiery competitor (ask Pedro Martinez), a good luck charm. He was all of those. (Derek Jeter would always take Zim's hat off and rub his head before he went up to the plate.) But one of the things that is sometimes overlooked about Zim is his baseball savvy. Our young guys used to love soaking up his stories and his instincts, and I did too. I was on the conservative side as a manager, but he shot from the hip and never looked back. He made me a little more daring. During our first spring training he suggested that we implement the safety squeeze, which became a big part of our offense during the early part of '96 because we didn't have a lot of power. He also had a knack for suggesting the right time to put on the hit-and-run. Today you have first base coaches with stopwatches in their pockets, timing pitchers' and catchers' releases. Zim had that in his head, next to that metal plate of his.
Sometimes, when games got out of hand one way or the other, we'd play a little trivia game in the dugout, quizzing each other on which uniform number belonged to which player on the old Dodgers. I grew up in Brooklyn, though I wasn't a Dodgers fan. He, of course, played for them. I wish times like those lasted longer than they did. His departure from the Yankees after the 2003 season might have stemmed from a decision that I regret. In 1999, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in spring training, and I was going to have to be away from the team for a bit. I had to decide who was going to take my place. I picked Zim, but in thinking back, I wish I had instead picked Mel Stottlemyre, my pitching coach. It was during my absence that the relationship between Zim and George Steinbrenner—who had been close friends—started to deteriorate. When we lost, George was looking for somebody to blame, and Zim, even though he was a tough son of a gun (and went 21--15 in my absence), was a very sensitive guy. Their relationship was never the same, even after I returned. If I had picked Mel, maybe Don would have stayed to my right all the way until the end of my time with the Yankees, after the 2007 season. It might be more than a coincidence that we never made another World Series after Zim left.
Since '04, Zim had been a senior adviser for the Rays. I thought it was appropriate that his memorial service was held at Tropicana Field, before Tampa Bay's game last Saturday. The ballpark was his tabernacle. He never felt quite comfortable anywhere else, except for at home or at the track. I remember we once did a commercial together, filmed at a minor league park in New Jersey. He was sitting to my right, on the bench, and his part of the commercial was to pick up the bullpen phone and say, "Hello there." He couldn't get the timing right, and he got a little frustrated and embarrassed. I suggested to the director that when it was Zim's turn to say his line, I'd just tap him on the leg, and he could take that as a cue. So we did that, and he said his line right on time. I said, "That was perfect, Zim, except for one thing. You didn't pick up the phone!"
Acting didn't come easy to a guy as genuine and unscripted as Zim. He lived what he would tell you was the ideal life—with Soot as his bench coach—and not only because he rarely had to wear a tie. He's going to be missed, although the memory of him will never fade. Baseball will never forget him. I won't either.
What are your favorite memories of Don Zimmer?
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NEIL LEIFER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED