ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Word began to reach Tropicana Field minutes before 9 p.m., the death of baseball legend Don Zimmer leaving a pall on this Wednesday evening. A game between the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays, still in progress in the middle innings, continued with its sensory overload: The crowd’s murmur, the pop of a catcher’s glove, the sound of a ball making contact with a thick bat.
But all those familiar rhythms of summer grew irrelevant to anyone with a heart for the game, once word of Zimmer’s death at BayCare Alliant Hospital in nearby Dunedin reached the press box here and spread throughout the world. A Rays employee told a colleague nearby to pass the word to manager Joe Maddon, who was one of many to be enriched by the man they called "Zim" and "Popeye," a legend who wore 14 different uniforms throughout his 56 seasons in the major leagues, the last 11 with Tampa Bay as a senior advisor.
"Call the dugout," the man said.
Many teams can claim Zimmer as their own, through his presence either as a player, coach or manager: The Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Senators, San Diego Padres, Texas Rangers, Montreal Expos, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies. But Zimmer owned a special relationship with the Rays/Devil Rays, a team for which he had served as an advisor since accepting a lunch invitation from then-team owner Vince Naimoli and then-manager Lou Piniella.
Over the years, Zimmer became part manager emeritus, part grandfather figure with the Rays. There were few limits to his influence: He could share personal history that spanned from Jackie Robinson, his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate from 1954 to ’56, to the New York Yankees’ dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s to Tampa Bay’s rise from American League East doormat to a contender.
"I just got done talking to the guys," Maddon said in his office, his eyes red. "A really difficult evening. I found out about the third or the fourth inning. I told the coaches we didn’t want to tell the players on the bench at that particular moment. â¦ We attempted to address the boys. It’s not easy. Yeah, we lost a buddy tonight."
Earlier, the impact of Zimmer’s impact could be felt. A large white sign with black block letters that read, "ZIM" hung near the press box, a message that was created shortly after Zimmer’s surgery in St. Petersburg on April 16 to repair a leaky heart valve. Third-base coach Tom Foley, who had worn Zimmer’s No. 66 jersey during games since May 23, dabbed his left eye with a white towel from the top step of his dugout upon receiving word of his friend’s death.
"We knew he was a fighter," Foley said in the Rays clubhouse later, sniffling between statements. "He had that grit. We’re just going to miss him around here. We have been missing him, and we were hoping he’d get back and be involved. But he’s really missed. Touched a lot of lives."
The lives touched here and throughout the nation are almost impossible to quantify. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig called him "one of our game’s most universally beloved figures." Joe Torre, Zimmer’s former boss in New York, said his accomplished colleague "became like a family member to me."
Zimmer was nationally known, a bridge between baseball’s present and its valued past. But in the Tampa Bay region, an area he had called home since the late 1950s, he’s treasured for up-close encounters that gave his reputation life: The advice shared with Maddon before games with a small bag of Coney Island hot dogs close by, the times he shed tears after seeing left-hander David Price pitch, the advice given to third baseman Evan Longoria about growing a legacy within the game beyond numbers.
Zimmer’s memory: Empathy over solo achievement, group grit over personal gain.
"He always was ragging on me," Longoria said. "That was the one thing that I could always look forward to from him was him giving me grief over something or just reminding me about the important things in the game, not the wins and losses, not the numbers, but ultimately, like I said, how he’ll be remembered, and that’s for being a great baseball guy. He brought so much to my game, and he taught me a lot of things. Those days, sitting in the dugout, will be missed."
The missed feelings were clear late Wednesday night in the Rays clubhouse. As Foley sniffled between his words, Zimmer’s white No. 66 jersey hung on a plastic hanger across the room, near a small video board flashing the day’s team announcements. The space was mostly empty, except for the occasional departing player. The space was mostly quiet, except for Foley’s rich memories.
"I’m going to miss him yelling at me once in awhile," he said before walking away. "It’s just a tough night, guys."
It’s a tough thing, saying goodbye to a gift of the game.