Let's start at the top: Don Zimmer doesn't have a plate in his head. It's one of those "facts" that any moderately interested baseball fan knows, but it just was never so.
Yes, he has had more than one serious beaning, one of which came on television the year before last (and may have helped him get this book contract). Yes, the first time he got hit, in 1953, left him senseless for six days and near death, and four holes were drilled into his skull as part of his treatment. He was only 22, and told not to think about playing ball ever again. But the closures for those holes, he says, were "tantalum buttons, that act kind of like corks in a bottle."Alone, that correction of the record almost justifies reading "Zim, a Baseball Life," the autobiography of a storied Red Sox manager, a guy who broke into Class D ball in 1949 and has never collected a paycheck outside the game.
But there are other reasons to while away a few hours with "Zim": Unlike many baseball memoirs, especially from Zimmer's era, he doesn't honor the "wouldn't say bleep if he had a mouthful" dictum that governed clubhouses until Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" changed the rules. He's generally positive, but when he doesn't like someone, he lets fly.
And he doesn't like Bill Lee, a.k.a. "the Spaceman," a left- handed pitcher in the '70s remembered fondly by Red Sox fans for his outrageous candor as well as for his mound successes.
"He's the only man I've ever known in baseball who I wouldn't let into my house, and I don't care who knows it," Zimmer says, still smarting after better than two decades. It's not hard to understand the attitude, given that Lee took to calling Zimmer "Gerbil." The Lee references - and there are at least eight of them - are part of a trove of Red Sox remembrances, making "Zim" particularly attractive to Boston readers.
Any fan who remembers 1978 knows about the Bucky Dent home run that sent the Sox to one of their most crushing defeats. Zimmer was the Boston manager then, the steward of the team that built an almost insurmountable lead that summer, then watched it bleed away in historic fashion. True, his team rallied to force a one-game playoff, but Sox fans know that that was just to make the pain of Dent's home run hurt all the more.
When Zimmer tallies up his best friends in the game, only one with Boston ties makes the cut: Jim Rice, who Zimmer argues passionately deserves inclusion in the Hall of Fame.
Though he didn't win anything with the Chicago Cubs, either, Zimmer also played key roles with baseball's other beloved franchise, and he enjoyed far more popularity as a manager there than he ever did in Boston. The '89 Cubs, he says, were called the "Boys of Zimmer." "My players made me a real big celebrity in Chicago. How big? I was doing commercials for both a diet center and a fried-chicken chain. You don't get much bigger than that. I had all the bases covered."
At the tail end of his career, Zimmer has found a home with the Yankees, where he has been bench coach for each of the team's four recent World Series triumphs. Actually, the team is woven into the length of his five-plus-decade career. Zimmer coached the team under Billy Martin in the '80s, and in the '50s he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, whom the Yankees regularly engaged - and usually vanquished - in the World Series.
Having been around the Yankees affords Zimmer one of his several distinctions. Three perfect games have been thrown in Yankee Stadium history - by Don Larsen in 1956, David Wells in '98, and David Cone in '99 - and Zimmer says he's the only one to have been in uniform for all three.
Other petty prestiges from Zimmer's career: He'll forever be the next-to-last player to wear No. 14 for the Cincinnati Reds, because he was followed by Pete Rose, who wore it so well that the number was retired.
And he was the first New York Met third baseman, which is notable only because the team's 40-year effort to find a dependable third baseman started with him.
Just as Zimmer straddled eras, so does his memoir. It has some humor and bite, but it also has some of those old-time locutions such as "About the greatest reward you can have in baseball is to be able to help someone," and he sometimes sounds like a guy who never had much need for book learning, such as when he describes a guy "as an all-purpose, Jack-of-all-trades utilityman."
Zimmer closes his book by saying, "For a lifetime .235 hitter, I've had a hell of a life," and on that score he is unassailable. One could add that for a lifetime .235 hitter, he's written a heck of a memoir.