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Editorial: Don Zimmer, a Baseball Life

Boston Red Sox fans don’t know whether to say a prayer, or curse and spit in the infield dirt — Don Zimmer, a baseball “lifer” and true character, died Wednesday at age 83. He managed Red Sox teams to the brink of glory, but in New England was mostly scorned.

Boston fans had a love-hate relationship with Zimmer that leaned heavily toward the latter, although fans had to respect his love of baseball — he was married between games of a minor league doubleheader in Elmira, N.Y., in 1951, with two lines of ballplayers holding up bats over Zimmer and his bride. He was in the game for 66 years. He liked to say that he never drew a paycheck outside of baseball.

Baseball’s slow pace and times of idleness invite storytelling, and Zimmer’s career was epic material. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949 and called it quits as a player in 1966, after one year in Japan. He was a minor league star whose career (and life) was nearly taken from him when he was beaned with a pitch, before batting helmets were in use.

Zimmer was mostly a utility player in the majors, but he helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win a championship in 1955 and was one of the original New York Mets. That team finished 60½ games out of first in 1962. The Dodgers and the Mets showed that both the zenith and the nadir can amaze.

As a coach and manager, Zimmer was as well traveled as a Greyhound bus driver. His years in Boston made him a lightning rod in a city of ferocious summer storms. His 1978 squad blew a 14-game lead to the New York Yankees, as Zimmer famously squabbled with his pitching staff, particularly the talented but eccentric Bill Lee, and refused to replace Butch Hobson at third base even after his elbow failed and his throws grew erratic. Hobson made 43 errors, his fielding percentage the worst in 60 years.

The Boston bitterness, where Zimmer was mockingly called The Gerbil for his stocky build, Popeye forearms and bulging jowls, softened over time. But it was comically revisited in 2003 when Zimmer, then a New York Yankees coach, charged Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez during a brawl between the teams. Martinez stepped aside and pushed the 73-year-old Zimmer to the ground, where he rolled like a watermelon fallen off a delivery truck. In that moment Zimmer lived what poet Dylan Thomas wrote: He did not go gentle into that good night. But whether that advice should apply to septuagenarians and baseball brawls is an open question.

Zimmer was a man of his times, but times change even if the man does not. A championship came to Boston when the Red Sox hired manager Terry Francona, who never spoke ill of his players and handled egos deftly. He was not a character like Zimmer; he was a modern man, and manager.

No matter what is thought of him, Zimmer’s longevity was remarkable. We don’t hear so much anymore of people retiring after working an entire career in an Upper Valley factory, or, for that matter, at Dartmouth College. Young people are told that they will have to switch careers multiple times, as all become free agents in a rapidly changing world.

But Zimmer never had to reinvent himself. As recently as 2011, he expressed unabashed joy at joining ballplayers in Tampa celebrating a playoff berth (earned at the expense of the Red Sox.) “I’m 80 years old, and I thought I was playing,” he said at the time. “This matches everything. It’s crazy, it’s beautiful, it’s baseball.’’ Few in baseball, or life, are as satisfied when the game is done.