The baseball gods are more forgiving with than you think, and Don Zimmer could have attested to that. They saddled his managerial legacy with the collapse of 1978, when his Boston Red Sox blew a 14-game lead to the New York Yankees, and made him endure the sight of a slap-hitting shortstop, Bucky Dent, swatting the division clincher over the great green wall in left field.
It was a fate far worse than his .235 career batting average or his 1962 season as a member of the original Mets . But in the end, out of left field, Zimmer got even on all scoreboards. The baseball gods owed him more than one, so they handed him a seat next to Joe Torre in 1996, the best seat in the house.
"Richie Ashburn said being with Joe would be the most fun I ever had," Zimmer would say two years later. "I wish Richie was alive so I could tell him he was right."
Zimmer would be Torre's co-pilot on a journey nobody saw coming, not after the thrice-fired manager was hired by George Steinbrenner in the fall of 1995 and was greeted by a screaming tabloid headline that called him "Clueless Joe." Torre pulled Zimmer out of semi-retirement to be his bench coach, and their partnership turned out to be baseball's answer to Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon.
"When Joe asked me to work for him, I didn't know him well," Zimmer would say. "But I knew three weeks in he'd become one of the special people in my life. Joe's had a lot to do with why I haven't retired again."
Zimmer was having too much fun to quit, too much fun watching Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera grow into first-ballot Hall of Famers and centerpieces of the Yankees' last dynasty. Whenever Joe Torre, or Joe Cool, was sitting too comfortably in the dugout, playing things by the book, the riverboat gambler inside Zimmer would emerge in full force, compelling the manager to get the baserunners moving, to call for a squeeze, something, anything, to catch the opponent off guard.
"We had a perfect marriage," Torre once said.
Perfect enough to win four World Series titles in their first five years together. With his Popeye arms and bulging cheeks and unconventional plans of attack, Zimmer was seen as a beloved -- if eccentric -- uncle and one with a clear favorite nephew: Jeter.
The bench coach would hold the shortstop's bat in the dugout, and Jeter would come over and rub his bald head for good luck. Not long after Jeter's signature flip play against the Oakland A's in the 2001 American League Division Series, a play some corners of Yankeedom swore had been practiced, Zimmer shot down those who were skeptical of the claim. He said the Yanks had interns running the bases during a defensive drill one spring when a right fielder overthrew both of his cutoff men, stopping Zimmer and Torre in their tracks.
"We looked at each other and said, 'What are we going to do if that happens in the game?'" Zimmer would say. "Well, there's not going to be a play at second or third; what's the shortstop doing? We found a spot for him."