Mourning Don Zimmer and Baseball's Great Hatreds
All around Major League Baseball, people are taking time today to remember Don Zimmer, who passed away last night at the age of 83. A "baseball lifer," as Yankees Manager Joe Girardi put it, Zim's 66-year career spanned almost every major era in the modern game from integration to the present.
If you're a baseball fan, chances are Zim affected your team in some way. He reinvented himself countless times, but his loss will be reverberate most in New York: He played his first year in the majors alongside Jackie Robinson, backing up Pee Wee Reese at shortstop for the 1954 Brooklyn Dodgers and gaining a front-row seat to the breaking of baseball's color barrier. He was the Mets' very first third baseman, selected by the team before its inaugural season in the 1961 expansion draft, playing under legendary manager Casey Stengel. He was the Red Sox manager in 1978, overseeing their historic collapse in a season perhaps most remembered for turning Bucky Dent into a hero in New York and an expletive in Boston -- a nickname Zim himself coined. And of course, he was Joe Torre's right-hand man, serving as the Yankee skipper's bench coach during the dynasty years.
How you remember him will depend largely on your generation -- for mine, it's that dominant run starting in 1996. The lasting image for Millennial fans comes from 2003, Zim's final season on the Yankees' bench. Game 3 of the ALCS at Fenway Park will forever be remembered for the benches-clearing brawl in which Zim -- then 72 -- hurtled toward Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez, who proceeded to grab him by the neck and throw him to the ground. "I think that exemplifies how he was," Derek Jeter said last night. "He was a fighter, you know."
Zim's death occuring in Jeter's last year before retiring is somewhat fitting, signaling the end of all that made the dynasty years great for Yankees fans. Yet it's also the passing of a figure deeply entrenched in a historic rivalry that has long lost its luster. He wore red when Bucky Dent broke Boston fans' hearts in 1978 and pinstripes when Aaron Boone did the same in 2003. Zim experienced Yankees-Red Sox from both sides, in two completely different eras that ultimately ended the same way: Boston futility, New York success and repeated chants of "1918." And the first year he spent post-pinstripes, when he joined the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2004, was the year the rivalry died, as the Red Sox broke the curse and won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
These recent years have obviously been better for Boston fans, who have enjoyed three championships to New York's one. But something's missing. The rivalry is no more. The fans might still hate each other, but the players swap pleasantries almost as easily as they swap teams these days. Where's the fire? Where's the passion? Where's Lou Piniella?
Part of it is that in an era of bigger contracts and more power in the players' hands, teams no longer own their talent, and players are free to chase the money -- even if it comes from the enemy's coffers. It's also a result of increased parity in the game: The Yankees and Red Sox are no longer the perennial juggernauts they once were, and there's no guarantee that the two teams will meet in the postseason year after year. The road to the World Series doesn't just go through the Bronx or Yawkey Way anymore; you also might need to get through Camden Yards, Tropicana Field and Comerica. And that's a good thing.
No East Coast bias here -- I'd welcome any rivalry that can match the intensity that Yankees-Red Sox used to have. When those two teams got together, it was an almost Biblical fight to the finish, and the result was some pretty legendary baseball that we still remember decades later. I'm mildly excited for the prospect of the burgeoning bad blood between the Red Sox and the Rays, highlighted by David Ortiz's declaring war on David Price and the rest of Tampa. Boston.com's Jeremy Gottlieb described the budding rivalry:
Bench-clearing incidents, mind-boggling defensive lapses, big blown leads, beanball exchanges, mass ejections, perfectly placed clutch hits, unsung heroes, out-of-nowhere pitching performances, horrendous umpiring, managers seemingly auditioning for their own primetime TV shows, wars of words, opposing pitchers taking exception to idioms or other figures of speech involving the word "war," and much, much more.
Sound familiar? I certainly hope so. As we mourn Zim's loss, let's hope the passionate rivalries that elevate the game haven't passed with him.
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