ST PETERSBURG, Fla. — They gathered on a field to remember a man who became many things to the baseball world, because this collection of dirt and turf was his tabernacle. Don Zimmer was a person of no church, of no grandiose visions of how he wanted to be honored when his life was through. On this Saturday afternoon, with his influence binding old and young, thousands at Tropicana Field came to pay respects to the one they called Zim.
Minutes before 4 p.m. ET, the scene near the Tampa Bay Rays’ dugout resembled more reunion for Zimmer than funeral. Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and his third-base coach, Tom Foley, hugged Jean Zimmer, Don’s wife. Baseball dignitaries such as Joe Torre and Jim Leyland mingled with players, coaches and members of Zimmer’s family to offer well-wishes.
Soon, a tribute played on the video board beyond right field to start a short ceremony. Visuals from Zimmer’s 66 years in professional baseball were set to Frank Sinatra’s "My Way."
"Perfect," Tom Zimmer, Don’s son, said afterward.
It felt right. The 20-minute ceremony was Zimmer in every way: Humble, memorable, real. Since his death Wednesday night at age 83, the outpouring of love for the baseball ambassador to many from Boston to San Diego and points in between showed what he meant as a friend and mentor. This was a chance for the Rays and others — fans and the sport’s legends alike — to say goodbye.
"He was just a special guy," Leyland said.
"You couldn’t duplicate him," Tommy Lasorda said.
That’s what will be missed. Don’t let Zimmer’s bulldog exterior fool you. Inside, he owned a heart both soft and warm, someone who could motivate with his baseball knowledge that spanned six decades and shed tears at elite performances within the game. He grew from a young man from Cincinnati signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949 for a bonus of $2,500 to a legend who rubbed elbows with movie stars like Paul Newman and Kevin Costner, sometimes without knowing who they were.
That was Zimmer, more grit than glitter. He enjoyed hot dogs from Coney Island Grill in St. Petersburg. He valued his hours at horse and dog tracks, studying to find the next great winner. It’s sweet coincidence that the Rays celebrated his life hours before Belmont Stakes.
"He’s probably up there changing stations right now," Torre said. "He’s just looking for something more interesting than talking about him."
"He’d probably rather watch the Belmont," Leyland said.
Finality was found in this day. Zimmer suffered no more. He had undergone kidney dialysis after sustaining a diabetic coma at his residence in Seminole, Fla., in May 2012. His appearances around the Rays, with whom he served as a senior adviser since January 2004, were more infrequent in recent years. He appeared at Tropicana Field on Opening Day this season with oxygen tubes needed to breathe. He had surgery April 16 to repair a leaky heart valve and required a respirator in the following weeks.
Tom, Zimmer’s son, had waited for the call that he received Wednesday for eight weeks. A scout for the San Francisco Giants, he was working in Pensacola, Fla., when he received word that his father had died at BayCare Alliant Hospital in Dunedin, Fla.
Tom, after finishing his work duties, let his wife drive most of the eight hours to the Tampa Bay region because the text messages kept flooding into his cell phone. The goodwill came from all over, figures Tom recognized and others he didn’t: Owners, general managers, team presidents.
Most of the time, Tom could only respond with a simple "Thank you."
"He’s just a simple person," Tom said, "but they treat him like a rock star."
Whether Zimmer liked it or not, that’s the reverence he earned. He was a walking Cooperstown, someone who played with Jackie Robinson and coached Derek Jeter. Being around him was like stepping into history, and in recent years, his touch knew no limits, from Longoria to B.J. Upton to David Price and so many more.
"Everybody knows who Don Zimmer is," Torre said. "I think you’re finding that out. It doesn’t have to be a sports show. … He’s an institution in this game. He’s someone that everybody would love to embrace, everybody would love to sit down and have dinner with.
"Baseball is a game of life. It’s how you live it — not only how you play it, it’s how you live it. And he was great at that."
This was the proper way to honor Zimmer’s legend. He was married at home plate of Dunn Field in Elmira, NY, on Aug. 16, 1951. Before he died, he made it clear he didn’t want a large funeral, no setting where thousands could walk by a casket and say, "I’m sorry." He will be cremated. No other memorial service is planned.
So the "ZIM" patches that the Rays unveiled Saturday were a fine touch. They feature a black border with blue letters. With the blue, they hint at the life he brought to the game, the spark.
"He was a hustle coach," said Whitney Mollica Goldstein, Zimmer’s granddaughter, who threw a strike to Tom to end the ceremony. "He was a blue-collared coach. He doesn’t care about fame. He doesn’t care about how much money players are making. He’s just there for the love of the game, and I think that’s what has really rubbed off, too, on our family.
"He really wanted happiness where he’s happy."
Late Saturday afternoon, minutes after the ceremony, Jean seemed happy too. She stood in a small room high above home plate and wore eyeglasses after tears made her contacts burn. She smiled. She offered thanks. There was peace for the man many loved.
"I know he’s up there looking down," she said. "He said, ‘I started on the ball field. I got married on the ball field.’ And he ended up being celebrated … on a ball field. I can’t think of a better way to go.
"It was a great life. No regrets. He loved every minute of it."