WASHINGTON -- It wasn’t the ideal way for someone to hear they’d lost a friend and mentor. But that’s life in the fast-paced, everyday grind of the baseball world.
Ryne Sandberg learned of Don Zimmer’s death from a television report in the clubhouse during a rain delay Wednesday night.
“Very sad to hear about Zim,” Sandberg offered without prompting Thursday afternoon. “He influenced me as a player and a baseball guy. He played a big part in teaching me the game.”
Zimmer was third base coach and later manager during the first half of Sandberg’s playing career with the Chicago Cubs. When Sandberg had the itch to return to baseball and give minor-league managing a try in 2007, he sought the advice of two men: Jim Frey, the former Cubs’ manager and general manager, and Zimmer.
Both encouraged Sandberg to go for it.
“He went a long way in mentoring the players and had a big influence on me,” Sandberg said of Zimmer, who managed four big league clubs and became a legend as bench coach for the New York Yankees on four World Series title teams under Joe Torre.
“He was a real aggressive guy. When he was third base coach he actually came up to me on two different pitches and said, ‘Get a big lead right here, as soon as he moves you’re gone.’ So I got my lead and stole home twice.
“I remember a three-run home run that I had hit that was overturned in '89 and called foul. Zim was the manager and he went out and went absolutely ballistic on the third base umpire and fell down twice slipping on the dirt. It was quite the scene.
“He was a character. It all started with his looks, I think, and with the nickname Popeye. He had an old-school, rugged baseball look about him, the big chaw in there.”
Sandberg’s greatest memory of Zimmer is the day the lifelong baseball man compared Sandberg to Jackie Robinson for his honest, hard-working approach to the game. Zimmer was a teammate of Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“It was the biggest compliment a coach ever gave me,” Sandberg said. “He said I reminded him of Jackie Robinson and I took that a huge compliment and I really read up on Jackie Robinson and took it to heart. He said my aggressive baserunning, hustle and the way I swung the bat reminded him of Jackie.”
Sandberg is an inducted member of baseball’s Hall of Fame. He would love to see the Hall honor his friend with the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, which was established in 2008 in honor of the legacy of one of the game’s great ambassadors.
“To me, he’s one of those guys who should be considered for the Buck O’Neil award for the Hall of Fame, the baseball lifer type of guy who influenced the game with his accomplishments,” Sandberg said. “He did just about everything in the game.”
For 66 years. Zimmer was still working as an adviser to the Tampa Bay Rays when he died at 83 on Wednesday night.
“When it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood,” Sandberg said.