CLEVELAND -- This was the only way Don Zimmer was going to leave the game. He actually quit once, almost 19 years ago to the day Wednesday, leaving in the fifth inning because he didn't want anyone fussing over his retirement as a coach of the Colorado Rockies. He was 64 at the time, and when he left that June day in 1995, he took two fungoes with him. "He said he needed them to hit infield,'' manager Don Baylor said.
Six months later, days after cashing his first Social Security check, he was back, embarking on what would become one of the most famous -- and rewarding -- chapters of an extraordinary baseball life, as Joe Torre's bench coach in the Bronx. And if you looked closely as the Red Sox played the Rays over the past two weekends, while the ailing Zimmer was not present, Rays third base coach Tom Foley was wearing his jersey.
Zimmer's hardball odyssey began in Brooklyn, ended in St. Petersburg and crisscrossed the baseball universe, with Zim wearing the uniforms of teams both iconic -- the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Yankees, the Cubs, the Giants and the Red Sox -- and humble -- the Padres and Rangers and Rockies and Rays and the '62 Mets.
He was Popeye in Brooklyn, the Gerbil in Boston, Yoda in New York and Zim everywhere. He was the last of the Dodgers, a talisman for the Yankees, a great-grandfather to the Rays and an indelible part of the tapestry of Red Sox history for nearly 40 years, from the age of Lynn and Rice and Bill Lee and Bucky Effin' Dent to the era of Pedro and Papi and beyond. Last that long, and sometimes you pass through all the stages of public judgment, from scorn to tolerance to grudging respect to, finally, something approaching love.
He was the Red Sox third-base coach who shouted "No, no, no,'' when Denny Doyle heard "Go, go, go'' in '75. He managed a Sox team that won 99 games in '78 but blew a 14-game lead to the Yankees, who took four straight from the Sox in September in what became known as the Boston Massacre, then won a one-game playoff immortalized by Dent.
He returned in '92 to join the coaching staff of one of his former players, Butch Hobson, the third baseman Zim had played day after day in '78 even though the bone chips in his elbow were crippling.
"I'd see him working those chips around between pitches," Zimmer once told me. "There were times he'd get a double-play ball, but when he went to throw it, he couldn't do it. The elbow had locked up on him."
And in 2003, he was the raging (and aging) bull who charged Pedro Martinez in a Sox-Yankees game and was hurled to the ground, vaulting Martinez into the ranks of all-time Yankee villains.
"Pedro took some heat that he shouldn't have taken," Zimmer would say a year later. "They say,'Well, Pedro beat up an old man.' Pedro didn't beat up an old man -- an old man was dumb enough to go after him. Pedro didn't do nothing wrong, as far as I'm concerned, and doesn't owe me an apology. I went after him, and I apologized to everybody for what I did. And I let it go at that."
He was the manager who released the beloved Rico Petrocelli to make room on the roster for Hobson, a move he told me was his toughest ever as a manager.
"My life was threatened," Zimmer said. "I had plainclothes cops around me and everything."