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TELANDER: For Don Zimmer, life was a game

Cubs manager DZimmer acknowledges applause after lights were turned Monday night Wrigley Field.

Cubs manager Don Zimmer acknowledges applause after the lights were turned on Monday night in Wrigley Field.

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Updated: June 5, 2014 10:03AM

He had a face made for baseball.

Indeed, if there had been red seams of yarn encircling Don Zimmer’s round noggin, the career baseball man could have passed for a walking, talking, major-league Rawlings ball.

Zimmer, 83, died in Tampa, Florida, on Wednesday, of complications from heart valve surgery. Born in Cincinnati, Zimmer started his pro career in 1949, as an 18-year-old minor-league free agent for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Like the lifer he was destined to become, he followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles when they departed after the 1957 season.

Next stop for the 5-9, 185-pound, feisty infielder whose bloated cheeks would eventually earn him the nickname ‘‘The Gerbil’’ was our own Chicago Cubs. Here in Chicago for the 1960 and 1961 seasons, Zimmer would have his most continual big-league playing experience, starting 260 games and coming to bat 914 times. That he only hit .258 and .252, respectively, with 75 total RBI was irrelevant. His passion for the game was that of a young man in love.

He played 12 seasons in the majors, then became a coach and manager. So many things happened to him along his meandering baseball path that it’s hard to encapsule quickly. He was beaned in the minor leagues, for instance, and nearly killed. He had surgery and was unconscious for nearly two weeks, and when he woke up, he thought it was the day after the game.

Doctors had drilled holes on both sides of his head to relieve pressure on his brain, and they placed four tantalum buttons in his skull when done. Zimmer often joked that people who said he managed like he had a hole in his head were dead wrong: ‘‘I had four holes in my head!’’

Somehow, wherever Zimmer went as a coach or manager — from the Red Sox to the Yankees to the Giants to the Rangers to the Rockies, etc., and, yes, even the Cubs — the cameras seemed to find him.

How could they not? He looked like Popeye (another nickname), ready to squeeze a can of spinach down his gullet and explode. Everybody remembers when he was a Yankees coach in 2003 charging up to Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez during a flareup in the American League Championship Series and Martinez tossing him to the ground like a sack of potatoes. As a bit of a balm to that indignity, Zimmer was with the Yankees as a bench coach when they won four World Series.

He was the manager for the Cubs from 1988 to 1991, and a couple of important things occurred, though of course none included a World Series. First, he was the manager for the first night game at Wrigley Field. And two, he did lead the Cubs to a division title in 1989 and was named Manager of the Year. His reputation for competitiveness and his joy in talking endlessly about the game grew and grew, like his jowls.

By the end, he was a senior adviser for the Tampa Bay Rays, meaning he was still in baseball — a profession, he once said, that gave him every paycheck he ever received.

The game will miss Zimmer dearly, for the pair shared a deeply entwined embrace. Zimmer was married 63 years ago to his 10th-grade sweetheart and now-widow, Jean, at — where else? — a minor-league home plate.

An enduring love. A triangle, if you will, since baseball was at their side.


Twitter: @ricktelander

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