When a legendary baseball figure passes, it is easy to overdose on the “pastoral game and rhythms of life” pap. Baseball serves as the lyrics to the American Experience or something equally saccharine.
There is no denying, no matter how tightly cynicism grips you and how high you arch your eyebrow, that baseball -- as an entity and sport and immutable force in many lives -- is experienced differently than other pro sports. The way the season gently rolls out before us, the only game played under the summer sun where one year bleeds into the next and so on and so forth.
The biggest difference between baseball and the other sports is space, especially around the margins. They play so many games and the action on the field can take on a hypnotic quality, leaving a lot more room for color, especially around the fringes and in the spaces between plays.
It was that space that allowed Don Zimmer to live and bloom and flourish for more than 60 years. Zimmer occupied the rare air of Baseball Man. He spent a lifetime in the game, doing the thing he loved and the thing he knew best. From player to manager to coach to beloved human mascot, there was always room Zim.
There is no basketball equivalent to Don Zimmer. Hockey? Not so much. The military precision with which the NFL conducts its business makes the idea of a football analog laughable. In baseball, there’s time. There’s time and space for conversation in pregame dugouts and around batting cages and time to learn and talk and value somebody who played, coached, and managed at every imaginable outpost on baseball’s vast map.
His broad rubber face made it easier to TV audiences to recall him and some of his more unforgettable antics live long in the memory. The camera would find him often during the Yankees dynasty, the playoff broadcasts featuring one old timer or another extolling Zim’s virtues.
Everyone around the game spoke lovingly of Zimmer. His loyalty and his dedication to the game earned eternal respect, outlasting franchises and commissioners and steroids and any other obstacle placed in his way.
For this, we are thankful. Thankful to Zimmer and his family for his contributions to the game and to the game itself for allowing somebody like the man they called “Popeye” to eek out more than a half century in its loving embrace.
Baseball gave Don Zimmer a baseball life and he lived it well. He famously stuck up for his players and squabbled with the Steinbrenners and helped protect, for lack of a better term, the culture of the game at its highest level.
Any tribute to Zimmer is a tribute to the game, as there simply could not be one without the other. A symbiotic relationship, 83 years in the making.