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."
He once told me about the time he was driving home after a game in '78, when things were going south, and they were killing him on the radio, and his daughter, who now lives in New Hampshire, was crying in the backseat.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"I'm so tired of you being booed, Daddy,'' she said. "I'm afraid you're going to get fired.''
Zimmer, of course, was eventually fired, and those hurts did not disappear overnight. But heal they did, and Zimmer spoke with great amusement about the reception he got when he came back years later.
"Tremendous," he said. "You'd think I won the World Series there. When I was manager there, 36,000 people a night, every night, booed me -- everybody except my wife.
"When I go back now, I'm a hero. I hear people say, 'Boy, we're sad you left Boston.' I say, 'Where were you when I needed you?'"
But while forgiveness flowed from all sides, such was not the case with Bill Lee, the Sox pitcher who dubbed Zimmer "Gerbil" and with whom the manager had a hate-hate relationship.
"I can't stand him," Zimmer once told me. "I've been in baseball [for more than 60 years], and he's the only man in baseball I wouldn't let in my home.''
Even so, when the chance came to return to Boston, Zim didn't hesitate.
"I always loved Boston, I really did," he said. "People laughed at me when I said that, even my friends, but I spent seven of the best years of my life there. When Hobson called, I said, 'Let's go.'"
And now, at age 83, Don Zimmer is gone. Hope those fungo bats went with him.