In the 1988 movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Coster’s character Ray Kinsella asks Burt Lancaster’s Moonlight Graham,
“If you could do anything you wanted, if you could have a wish …”
Moonlight Graham’s answer is feel the tingle in his arms as he connects with the ball, to run the bases, to stretch a double into a triple, to flop face first into third, and to wrap his arms around the bag.
“That’s my wish, Ray Kinsella, that’s my wish,” Graham answers.
On July 2, 1954 at Connie Mack Stadium against the Philadelphia Phillies, a rookie shortstop named Don Zimmer hit a triple in his first Major League at-bat. After two outs, Zimmer scored on a single by Dodgers third baseman Don Hoak, a man who, according to legend, once batted in a Cuban exhibition against Fidel Castro.
How about that for a debut laced in magical coincidences?
But the story begins years before that. The story of Don Zimmer begins in 1949 when an 18-year old from Cincinnati, only six days removed from his high school graduation, traveled to Maryland to join the Cambridge Dodgers of the Class D Eastern Shore League. In those days, Class D was as low a Minor League as you could be in, a rookie league of former high school standouts and, if older, organizational filler who had no chance of making their dream. The journey to the big leagues was long and arduous in those days.
Another twist of coincidence met young Don Zimmer in Cambridge. During their final year as a minor league team, the Cambridge club was sponsored by the clothing store of Philip Frankel, father of a young actress named Beatrice Frankel, otherwise known as Bea Arthur.
In 1949, while young Bea was cutting her chops at the historic Cherry Lane Theater in New York City, Zimmer hit only .227 and committed 27 errors for the Dodgers. An auspicious beginning to a distinguished career.
Despite his slow start, Zimmer persevered, plugging away in Hornell, New York; Elmira, New York; Mobile, Alabama; and St Paul, Minnesota before finally cracking the lineup with the big league Dodgers in 1954, the same year Hank Aaron made his debut for the rival Milwaukee Braves.
Joining Zimmer on the Dodgers that year was another rookie, a young left-handed pitcher named Tom Lasorda. They joined some of the best names to ever wear Dodger Blue, a cast of Hall of Famers that included Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese, and Roy Campanella.
They were the Boys of Summer who became the Men of Los Angeles.
On April 8th, 1960, Zimmer was traded from the Dodgers to the Cubs, setting off a journey that would take him to four additional Major League teams as a player; to the leagues of Cuba, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; to the coaching staff of eight teams, and to the manager’s seat of four.
He was a member of the original Mets, a team that lost 120 games. Fortunately for Zimmer, he was traded after only month with the team.
In total, he wore at least 26 different uniforms over the 66 years he was in professional baseball. He lived the dream. His life was full of the moments Moonlight Graham wished to have and we who love baseball can only dream of.
Statistically, one of Zimmer’s top comparables is Dale Sveum, the former Milwaukee Brewers shortstop and once well-traveled utility player who has since become a well-traveled coach and once-manager of the Chicago Cubs.
Coincidentally, Zimmer also managed the Cubs.
Zimmer also managed the San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, and Texas Rangers. Zimmer was not only the manager of the Red Sox team that lost to the Yankees and Bucky “bleeping” Dent on the final day of the 1978 season, but he was also at the helm of the 1977 Red Sox team that inspired future baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti to pen the classic essay “Green Fields of the Mind”.
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
Giamatti went on to describe the final day of the 1977 season and the elimination of the Red Sox from contention. The essay is one of baseball’s most-highly regarded written pieces.
Giamatti closes with two paragraphs that may be as much about life as they are about baseball.
That is why it breaks my heart, that game–not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.
Like Giamatti and his green field, we too were tricked by the game. Baseball made us believe Don Zimmer would live forever. That each season when we dust the winter off our eyelids we would see his familiar figure in uniform and think – know – Don Zimmer was as much as part of the game as the bat, the ball, or the chalk down the baseline.
We never learn. We expect the sun to shine, the grass to be green, the bat to make its familiar crack when it hits the ball, and for Don Zimmer to be somewhere coaching, teaching, and imparting lessons from a lifetime in baseball. After all, most who remember the game before Zimmer are themselves mostly gone.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays/Rays were lucky to have Don Zimmer wear their uniform for his final eleven seasons in professional baseball. He was coach, adviser, teacher, father, and grandfather. He imparted countless lessons to the players, the staff, and to Joe Maddon. He taught them how to play the game, how to be a professional, and how to act in the Major Leagues. Almost to a man, they say Don Zimmer also taught them about life.
This season, when Don Zimmer was carted on to the field for Opening Day instead of standing at Joe Maddon’s side, we talked in whispers. Some prayed. And now that the end is here, we cry.
Now we take solace in the notion that the once-young shortstop from Cincinnati, Ohio is still watching and still enjoying the game, but instead of from a familiar dugout, it is from the heavens above.
Life, like baseball, is designed to break your heart.
RIP Don Zimmer (1931-2014)
(Picture from Collecting Zim, a collection of Don Zimmer photos, collectables, and cards.)