Former player, coach, manager Don Zimmer dies at 83

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A baseball lifer and one of the sport’s most historic figures of the past six decades, Don Zimmer’s impact on the game touched many.

He was player, a coach, and for the final 10 years of his life, a senior advisor for the Tampa Bay Rays. He became living history, a treasure trove of baseball memories that spanned from Jackie Robinson to the New York Yankees’ dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s to the Rays’ transformation from American League East also-ran to a team that reached the World Series in 2008 as part of a run that included four playoff appearances from 2008 to 2013.

His fingerprints touched many, and those impacts will remain. Zimmer died Wednesday at BayCare Alliant Hospital in Dunedin, Florida. He was 83.

"A really difficult evening," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, speaking after hits team’s 5-4 loss to the Miami Marlins on Wednesday at Tropicana Field. "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. … We attempted to address the boys. It’s not easy. Yeah, we lost a buddy tonight."

Zimmer became a friend, a valued mentor, for many throughout baseball and elsewhere.

He was born Jan. 17, 1931, in Cincinnati. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him as an amateur free agent in 1949, and he made his debut in the majors on July 2, 1954. The infielder played for Brooklyn from 1954-57, serving as Robinson’s teammate from 1954-56.

Zimmer remained with the Dodgers in 1958-’59 when they moved to Los Angeles, before playing for the Chicago Cubs (1960-61), New York Mets (1962), Cincinnati Reds (1962), another short stint with the Dodgers (1963) and concluding his playing career with the Washington Senators (1963-65). He hit a career .235 with 91 homers and 352 RBI.

The Rays became the ninth uniform he wore as a coach or manager. He also had managing and/or coaching stints with the Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers, Yankees, Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies.

Zimmer finished with an 885-858 career record in managing stints over 13 seasons with the Padres (1972-73), Red Sox (1976-80), Rangers (1981-82) and Cubs (1988-91). He was named the National League Manager of the Year in 1989 after guiding Chicago to a 93-69 record and an NL East crown. He owned six World Series rings, four as a coach with the Yankees and two as a player with Brooklyn (1955) and Los Angeles (1959).

The Rays named him to his most recent role Jan. 8, 2004. When he was in good health, he was a familiar site in recent years during the team’s spring training activities in Port Charlotte, Fla., and at home games in St. Petersburg.

"Any time Zim got into a real conversation with you, he was so genuine," Rays left-hander David Price said. "He would start crying, whether it was how well you threw the ball that night, he’d be talking to you about it. He would start shedding tears. That’s how much he cared about the game. That’s how much he cared about us."

Zimmer, wearing tubes for oxygen, made an appearance on Opening Day this season at Tropicana Field, where he sat in the passenger seat of a golf cart and received an ovation from the crowd before the Rays played the Toronto Blue Jays on March 31. Rays manager Joe Maddon hugged Zimmer after Zimmer was introduced. Soon after, Rays players tipped their caps when Zimmer was driven off in a touching display.

Zimmer, a resident of the Tampa Bay region since the late 1950s, had battled a decline in health throughout recent months. He suffered from shortness of breath, limited mobility, fatigue and lung issues. He underwent a six-hour heart procedure April 16 in St. Petersburg to repair a leaky valve and required a respirator to breathe because of fibrosis in his lungs. He remained hospitalized since the procedure.

"Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said in a statement. "Don dedicated his life to the game he loved, and his impact will be felt for generations to come. His contributions to this organization are immeasurable. I am proud that he wore a Rays uniform for the past 11 years. We will miss him dearly."

In recent weeks the Rays had created various ways to honor Zimmer, who was able to watch Tampa Bay games after his April surgery. A large white banner that read "ZIM" in black block letter was hung next to the press box at Tropicana Field. Zimmer’s No. 66 jersey was displayed in the dugout, often visible behind Maddon. On May 23, third-base coach Tom Foley began wearing Zimmer’s No. 66 jersey in a gesture approved by Major League Baseball.

"Like everyone in Major League Baseball, I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend Don Zimmer, one of our game’s most universally beloved figures," MLB commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "A memorable contributor to Baseball for more than 60 years, Don was the kind of person you could only find in the National Pastime."

Added MLB executive vice president Joe Torre in a statement: "I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me. He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife Ali’s. We loved him. The game of Baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man."

Zimmer is survived by his wife, Jean, son, Tom, daughter, Donna, and four grandchildren: Beau, Whitney, Ron and Lane.

To many throughout baseball, his fire and passion for a lifestyle he grew to love will remain. Zimmer lived a full life in the game.

He’ll be remembered as a jewel, a treasure, of its history.

"He’s taken a lot of players under his wing in his time," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "I think bigger than me or bigger than anybody is what he meant to this game, what kind of a person he was and how he’ll be remembered ultimately is for that. What he brought to this organization, to the Yankees, to the Red Sox, to the Cubs, the Dodgers, every organization that he represented, it was all good. His family has a lot to be proud of, and we have a lot to be thankful for."

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.