Don Zimmer: A baseball and Bay area treasure

St. Petersburg, Florida -- Former major league player, manager and baseball icon Don Zimmer passed away on Wednesday, June 4 at BayCare Alliant Hospital in Dunedin, Florida. He was 83 years old.

Zimmer was known and loved by baseball fans for generations. But "Zim" was more than a baseball treasure. He was a Bay area treasure.

When the crowd roared loudest on Opening Day 2014, the cheers weren't for a star pitcher or a home run hitter. Instead, the roar filling Tropicana Field was saluting the Rays' senior baseball advisor.

It was the start of Don Zimmer's 66th season in professional baseball.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world. We've been on some ride! We've been everywhere!" Zimmer said during an interview in 2011 with his grandson, 10 News reporter Beau Zimmer.

VIDEO: Don Zimmer: A baseball and Bay area treasure

Starting in 1949 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, "Popeye" played twelve smiling season in the big leagues.

"I'm very proud of playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson and [Don] Newcombe, [Roy] Campanella, Pee Wee Reese," Zimmer said. "To think that I played with those guys, it's -- like I say, I'm the luckiest man in the world."

After two World Series wins, Zimmer moved on to manage clubs for another 13 years. His style in the dugout: happy, direct, and authentic.

Zim stunned the sports world in 1989, taking the underdog Cubs all the way to the playoffs. Writers named him the National League's manager of the year.

"That night, I would say that that was my biggest thrill, because of the team that it was," Zimmer said.

He later coached with other teams, sharpening the skills of stars like Derek Jeter, and winning four World Series titles with the New York Yankees.

Zimmer loved helping players get the most out of themselves. "There's more to this game than just catching a ground ball and hitting a ground ball," he said. "It's how you want to work your life and how you want to live."

In 2004, he joined the Tampa Bay Rays as a coach, mentor, and public face for the team. "I said, 'What is this job? I've been looking for this job all my life!'" Zimmer laughed. "They've made it pretty nice for me."

Including a short stint playing in Japan, Don Zimmer wore the uniforms of 14 different teams as a big league player, manager, or coach.

Through all that time, with all of those teams, the town he truly called home was St. Petersburg.

Don and his wife Soot moved to St. Pete to raise their family just few years after they got married in 1951 at home plate of a minor league ballpark.

Their kids Tom and Donna gave them four grandkids, including 10 News reporter Beau Zimmer.

The grandkids called him "Pops." They loved his generous, sincere nature and how he cared about his family as deeply as he cared about baseball.

VIDEO: Beau Zimmer remembers legendary grandfather Don Zimmer

But a life in love with baseball isn't always easy.

One summer, Zimmer's wife Jean -- who has gone by Soot since she was a little girl -- packed up the family car with supplies, two children, and no air conditioning.

"She drove from St. Petersburg to Los Angeles. I think it took them five days," Zimmer said. Soot unpacked the car, then cleaned and set up the home for a full summer of family life.

"I get off the airplane, and [a member of the L.A. Dodgers' staff] said, 'You were just sold to the Washington Senators!'" Zimmer remembered.

So Mr. Zimmer called Mrs. Zimmer. "She said, "I've already got one bag packed.' It was on the radio that I was traded and she's already packing up to get ready to go from L.A. to Washington, D.C."

"And that's the way our life has been."

The trades and moves -- the hirings and firings -- were challenging for the family. But other troubles were life-threatening.

During his career, Zimmer took three hard balls to the head. One left him in a coma for almost two weeks and another nearly blinded him. Those injuries prompted all Major League Baseball teams to make helmets mandatory for batters.

Another hard-hit ball hit him in the Yankees' dugout in 1999. Zim wasn't seriously hurt, but he famously smiled as he wore a green army helmet in the dugout the next night. And fans can still picture Zimmer getting thrown to the ground after charging at a pitcher in a playoff brawl -- at 72 years old.

Despite all of those hardships and hard hits, Don Zimmer loved baseball.

And he wore a sign of his connection to the game every day.

Each season, the number on Zim's Tampa Bay Rays jersey would increase -- from 56, up past 60, to 64, 65, and then 66.

The number on his uniform would change -- to match the number of years he had been a part of baseball, and baseball had been a part of him.

Special ceremony at Saturday's Rays game

The Rays will hold a special ceremony honoring Don Zimmer prior to the Rays-Mariners game on Saturday. The ceremony will include a video tribute to Zimmer. There is no funeral or other memorial service planned.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked donations be made to either the National Kidney Foundation or the Baseball Assistance team.

National Kidney Foundation
1040 Woodcock Rd Ste 119, Orlando, FL 32803
Phone: (407) 894-7325

Baseball Assistance Team
245 Park Avenue - 31st Floor, New York, NY 10167
Phone: (212) 931-7822

Condolences from the baseball community:

"Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man," said Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg. "Don dedicated his life to the game he loved, and his impact will be felt for generations to come. His contributions to this organization are immeasurable. I am proud that he wore a Rays uniform for the past 11 years. We will miss him dearly."

WATCH: Rays broadcast team announces passing of Don Zimmer

The Rays will honor the baseball icon with a moment of silence at tomorrow's Rays-Marlins game at Tropicana Field and will conduct a special pregame ceremony prior to the Rays-Mariners game on Saturday.

Major League Baseball Executive Vice President Joe Torre issued the following statement:

"I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me. He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife Ali's. We loved him. The game of Baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man."

WATCH:Yankees broadcast team announces the passing of Don Zimmer


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