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Don Zimmer, Baseball's Own 'Popeye,' Passes At The Age Of 83


Don Zimmer loved baseball, 66 years worth of love. Back in the 1950s, he was a promising player for the Brooklyn Dodgers and later for the original New York Mets. Injury diminished that promise. He took a number of pitches to the head. But what was lost when Don Zimmer became a coach instead of a player was a gain for other players for decades. Don Zimmer, who went by the nickname Popeye, has died at the age of 83. Richard Justice writes for mlb.com and joins us now to talk about Don Zimmer's legacy. Welcome to the program.

RICHARD JUSTICE: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Just very briefly, his - what kind of the player was see? I mean, I see here that he played for the Dodgers, the Mets, the Cubs, the Cincinnati Reds, the Washington Senators. What was he like on the field?

JUSTICE: Well, he was a scrappy player. He made the National League All-Star Team in 1961. In those days, the protective gear wasn't as good and pitchers did throw inside. He did lean over the plate, and he suffered a fractured skull and got a plate in his head. And he was probably never the same player after that. He bounced around - he bounced between the minor leagues and major leagues. And that was the essence of Don Zimmer. He loved putting on the uniform every day. Even in his 80s when he was a consultant with the Tampa Bay Rays. He was at his happiest when he put the uniform on. And he took joy in it whether it was in Elmira, New York, or Los Angeles, California.

CORNISH: And of course his managing career is what a lot of all are talking about today. Can you talk about some of the highlights there that - what made him stand out?

JUSTICE: That he kept getting chances, and the reason he kept getting chances is because he had an amazing amount of knowledge of the game. He walked up to a Tampa Bay Rays' bunting drill one time. He looks at a kid and says, I know where you learned to bunt. And he mentions the guy's name. The kid says, how did you know that? He said, hey, I've been in baseball 60 years. I know how certain things work.

And he's best known for the '78 Red Sox. He managed that team. They ended up - they blew a big lead in September ended up in a one-game playoff with the Yankees. And New England lore, Bucky Dent hit a home run to send the Red Sox home. You know, his best years, I think, probably some of his happiest years would be when Joe Torre brought him in as his bench coach for the Yankees and they won four championships. I mean, he clearly was the guy that Joe Torre trusted. There was such a ground-level wisdom with him Don the way he looked at it - the way he gauged people - maneuver strategy, all of that.

CORNISH: And of course he never retired, right? A baseball lifer was still working for the Tampa Bay Rays into his 80s. Very unusual? I mean, what does that tell us about him?

JUSTICE: It tells you that he loved it. Even when he was on kidney dialysis when his health was failing, he would ride around the fields in Tampa in a golf cart. He wanted to be around players and, you know, when he would walk into a ballpark you would see people flock to him - other players, coaches he had known through 66 years in baseball - ushers, cops, people liked hearing him laugh. They loved hearing his stories. And I'm telling you, Audie, his stories would be as delightful whether he was talking about a game at the lowest level of the minor leagues in a park with terrible lights or in the biggest stage on earth at the World Series. His life was baseball.

CORNISH: Richard Justice. He's executive correspondent for mlb.com. Thanks for remembering Don Zimmer with us.

JUSTICE: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.