Don Zimmer's 52D Season

Tampa--want to see the face of baseball? turn to the back of this page. What? You expected the sunburst smile of Ken Griffey beneath a backward-turned Reds cap? Or Pedro Martinez's assassin stare from the Fenway Park mound? No, such superstars come and go, but Don Zimmer is a baseball lifer.

Currently he is the Yankees' bench coach, whose job during games consists of sitting next to manager Joe Torre and dispensing advice based on intuition--intuition that distills more than half a century of experience. Understand Zimmer and you will understand baseball--and one reason why today's Yankees are so successful. No other sports franchise has the Yankees' glamour--the pinstripes, Yankee Stadium, 25 World Series won, Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Jeter. But beneath baseball's glitter there always is the grit of men like Zimmer.

He is the last former Brooklyn Dodger still wearing a major-league uniform. His number this year is 52, the number of years he has been a professional ballplayer. His number will be 53 next year, unless the grinding pain in his knee finally drives him out of the game. Sitting next to Zimmer in the dugout this morning as Legends Field, the Yankees spring training camp, stirs to life is number 8, another lifer with an artificial right knee. But Yogi Berra earned his knee problems in a Hall of Fame career of catching. Zimmer acquired his aches and pains in a more mundane career that began in places like Hornell and Elmira, N.Y. Beginning in 1954, it included 12 seasons in the big leagues. He was a utility infielder with a great team, the 1955 World Series champion Dodgers, and with the 1962 Mets, who lost a record 120 games. His career batting average was .235. He was a journeyman whose journey, which included winter ball in Latin America, ended in one of baseball's dead ends, with the expansion Washington Senators. Yet within baseball's little family he is, in his way, a legend.

He was born where professional baseball was, in Cincinnati. At 15 he was playing sandlot ball with Pete Rose's father. (In a 1962 stint with Cincinnati he became the last Reds player to wear 14 before Pete Rose.) At home plate before an Elmira night game in 1951 Zimmer married Soot (Jean), the girl he started dating in 10th grade. In 1953 Soot was nearly widowed at home plate in Columbus when Zimmer--this was before batting helmets--was beaned on the left temple. He was not fully conscious for 13 days, during which holes were drilled in his skull to relieve the pressure of swelling. His vision was blurred, he could neither walk nor talk and his weight plunged from 170 to 124. He was told he was finished at 22.

Not exactly. The next spring he was at the Dodgers' spring training camp. The climb to the big leagues was steeper back then. The Dodgers had 15 farm teams, compared with six today. Zimmer's climb got steeper when, in an exhibition game, he fouled a ball off his forehead. But he made the climb. In 1956 a Cincinnati Reds fastball broke his cheekbone. Go ahead, tell him baseball is not a contact sport.

He managed in the minors (Knoxville, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Key West, Salt Lake City) before coaching with the Expos, Giants and Rockies, and managing the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs. With the Red Sox he managed in one of the most famous games in history. In 1978 the Sox blew a 14-game lead, ending the season in a tie with the Yankees, who won the playoff game with a home run by light-hitting Bucky (Expletive Deleted) Dent, as he is known in New England. A few years later in Zimmer's baseball wanderings, he rented Dent's apartment, in which the walls were covered with pictures of Dent hitting the home run. Zimmer's biggest thrill in baseball? Going to Fenway for the 1978 playoff game. His biggest disappointment? The outcome of that game.

Coaching with the Rockies in 1995, Zimmer told management what he was going to do, and did it: he retired in the fifth inning of a game. He didn't want any fuss. He was out of baseball just long enough to get from Social Security the only check he ever received outside of baseball. Then Torre called, and Zimmer called Social Security to say, "Don't send no more."

Now we are in the era of big bang baseball, right? Last year there were 5,526 home runs, a 9 percent increase over 1998's record of 5,064. In 1989 the American League home run champion, Fred McGriff, hit 36 home runs. Last year, 20 big leaguers hit at least 36. In the five seasons 1990-94 only one player hit 50 home runs (Detroit's Cecil Fielder, 51 in 1990). In the five seasons 1995-99, six different players did it a total of 10 times. So why are the Yankees, who last year had no one hit even 30, champions?

Perhaps for the same reason that not since 1985 (when Steve Balboni hit 36 homers) has the World Series been won by a team with a player who hit 35 home runs for it during the season. Sports Illustrated's Stephen Cannella notes that it has been 20 years since the major-league home run champion played on a World Series winner (Mike Schmidt, 1980 Phillies), and only twice in the 1990s did a league home run leader's team even reach the playoffs. Teams become champions not primarily by big blasts, but by doing the little things right. The Yankees do them, often with an assist from their bench coach.

Bob Klapisch of the Bergen (N.J.) Record gives an example of Zimmer and Torre working in tandem. It was in 1998 in Oakland, in a 5-5 game going into the ninth. On a 3-2 pitch Tino Martinez walked. (In the 1996-99 span, the patient, selective Yankees pushed pitchers deeper into counts--seen more pitches per batter--than any other team. The Oakland A's have noticed. Last year the overachieving A's received more walks than any team since the 1949 Boston Red Sox.) Martinez is not fleet of foot, so as he reached first, Torre asked Zimmer if he would pinch-run for Martinez. Martinez was the Yankees' best late-inning hitter, but the next hitter was Chad Curtis, who often drives extra-base hits into the outfield gaps, so a runner faster than Martinez would have a much better chance of scoring the go-ahead run on a double. "Not now, not in a tie game," said Zimmer, thinking about the need for Martinez's bat in extra innings.

But then Curtis worked the count to 2-2, a good count for a fast runner to steal on. So Torre asked Zimmer: "How about now?" The Yankees had speedy Homer Bush on the bench. Zimmer said: "Not yet. Not at 2-2. But I might at 3-2." Having a full count with a fast runner on first would make Curtis a better hitter because the pitcher would throw a strike to avoid walking him and moving Martinez to second, where even he could score on a double or long single. The next pitch was ball three, and Torre told Zimmer, "All right, get Homer in there."

The threat that Bush might steal caused the pitcher to throw over to first twice to hold Bush close to the bag. Then, the pitcher's concentration perhaps frayed, he tried to avoid a walk by throwing Curtis a ball over the plate. But it was over the middle of the plate. Curtis hammered it for a two-run home run. The A's scored two in the bottom of the ninth, so the Yankees had to win it in the 10th, but they were only able to do that because of the Torre-Zimmer nuances in the top of the ninth.

When Torre hired him, Zimmer told him to feel free to ignore his advice: "You're not going to hurt my feelings. I'm too old to have feelings." Torre spends a lot of time with Zimmer off the field, too. Other coaches carry stopwatches, timing batters from home to first, runners from first to second, pitchers getting the ball from the stretch position to the plate, catchers getting the ball to second. "Zimmer," says Torre, "has a clock in his head." Zimmer's secret? Says Torre, laconically: "It's just things that he senses." Zimmer has an old man's disapproval of many modern things. Guaranteed contracts, for one: insecurity is a splendid spur. And five-man pitching rotations: "If I was paying someone $9 million, I'd want him out there every four days." And he thinks the designated hitter takes the challenge out of managing: "If you want to relax, without having to think much about what's going on, you want to be in the American League."

But he knows baseball is in many ways better than ever. "When I was playing," he says, "after the last game of the season you put your glove and spikes on the shelf and the next time you touched them was when you went to spring training." Now baseball is an around-the-calendar job. He thinks there are four future Hall of Fame shortstops playing in the American League--the Mariners' Alex Rodri-guez, the Red Sox's Nomar Garciaparra, the Indians' Omar Vizquel and the Yankees' Derek Jeter (whose pregame ritual includes rubbing Zimmer's stomach and head, and patting his hips).

Zimmer played with the man who opened the door for African-Americans--Jackie Robinson--and came to the big leagues five years before the Red Sox became the last team to field a black player. Today, when three of the five most common surnames in baseball are Martinez, Rodriguez and Garcia, more than one fifth of major leaguers are from foreign countries. A team of players from the Dominican Republic might beat an All-Star team formed from all the rest. It would if the Dominicans pitched Pedro Martinez, who last year had one of the finest years in major-league history.

Last year he started the All-Star game, facing six batters, fanning five. In the 23-4 season that he wrapped around that gem his 2.07 earned run average was less than half the average for American League starters (5.03). With runners in scoring position, batters hit .204 against him. With runners in scoring position in late innings of close games they batted .134. He had 313 strikeouts, while no other American Leaguer had more than 200. His 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings is the best by a starter ever. No pitcher ever matched his eight consecutive games with 11 or more strikeouts, and in 17 post-season innings last year he allowed no runs and struck out 23.

Has Zimmer ever seen anything like that? As a matter of fact he has, in that fateful year 1978, when the Yankees' Ron Guidry was 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA. Guidry started the Bucky (Expletive Deleted) Dent game. Where is Guidry today? Right here, imparting wisdom to rookie pitchers. You see why they call it Legends Field?

Zimmer, who has seen it all, hasn't seen enough, because as the seasons roll by, greatness follows greatness, and records fall. Certainly this year he is going to see a crackerjack (so to speak) season. If on opening day--make that Opening Day; capital letters for this civic festival, even if it occurs this year in Japan--Rey Ordonez of the Mets plays his usual flawless game, he will extend to 101 his major-league record streak of consecutive errorless games. (Last year he broke Cal Ripken's record of 95 consecutive games.) Hall of Famer Rod Carew holds the record of 15 All-Star game starts. Ripken, who is nine hits from 3,000, could start his 16th in Atlanta in July. If the Rangers' catcher Pudge Rodriguez starts the All-Star game, he will tie Johnny Bench's record of nine straight starts--and Pudge is just 28 years old. If the Padres' Tony Gwynn hits .300 for the 18th time in 18 seasons, he will trail only Ty Cobb's record 23 consecutive .300 seasons. Mariano Rivera, the reliever who gets outs numbers 25, 26 and 27 in Yankees wins, has not been scored on since last July--33( regular season innings, plus another 12g in postseason play.

The pain in Zimmer's knee permitting, he will see this season through, and don't bet against seeing number 53 at Legends Field next spring. He will be leaning not on a cane, which he thinks has no place on a baseball field, but on a fungo bat. Perfect.