The Washington Post archives are filled with Don Zimmer stories, many of them concerning his time in D.C., near the end of his playing days. That’s what I was looking for this afternoon, spurred by news of Zimmer’s death. Instead, I was sucked into a vortex of columns by Shirley Povich, who seems to have loved writing about Zimmer.
So the charming Zimmer-in-Washington tales will have to wait for another day. Because Povich using Zimmer’s pending ouster in Boston as inspiration to rip New England’s “radio idiots” takes priority.
Here’s Povich’s column, with a Baltimore dateline, from late May, 1979. — DS
In Boston’s Fenway Park, he is booed at the first opportunity, as when he leaves the dugout with the Red Sox batting order in hand. And when he makes a pitching change. And when he doesn’t make a pitching change. When for any reason he leaves the bench and becomes visible to the crowd.
It is Boston chic to boo Manager Don Zimmer, a nasty and vicious vogue.
Zimmer should titillate them. On appearance, he is a model of the baseball caricaturist’s art, a blow-up of the figurines found on the gift shop shelves.
He is short and thick, and fills every thread of his baseball doubleknits. His cap is clamped too far down on a hairless head, coming to rest on fat ears, ruddy ones. His left cheek, wadded with his favorite Red Man chewing tobacco, gives him the lopsided look of a case of mumps.
But Zimmer does not amuse Boston fans. For two years, he has been a target of their growing hostility. His sin has been a clear one: He didn’t win those two pennants Boston fans expected won in 1977 and 1978. No matter that he came awfully close.
In Boston, the prevailing view of the fans is that the games the Red Sox, lose are Zimmer’s fault: the games they win are despite Zimmer.
They are conditioned to this belief by the constant mouthings of as depraved a group of radio talk-show hosts as ever fouled the air. They do this with the massive second-guess whenever the Red Sox lose, which is always more than 60 times a year.
The minds of Boston fans are shaped by these instant baseball experts who, with an eye to their own ratings, have latched onto the Red Sox as the hottest topic in town. Nowhere else does baseball radio talk begin at 10 in the morning. The two prime topics everywhere else are politics and the weather. In Boston: baseball and politics.
Boston was once described as “a state of mind,” by Mark Twain. He might now describe it as mindless of at least two facts: (1) that those talkshow baseball mavens have doubtful qualifications and, (2) that no Boston manager in 36 years won as many games as Zimmer’s team in each of the past two seasons.
They are called “them talk -show idiots” by Zimmer. “One day last season,” he said, “they kept asking on the air why I didn’t pitch Dick Drago in the late innings in Texas when we let an 11-10 game get away. They wanted to know what kind of a bum Zimmer was for not using his best relief pitcher.
“They didn’t bother to find out that Drago said he was pooped after pitching three straight games and asked me for the day off.”
This year in spring training former Red Sox hero Joe Cronin, who was aware of the boos in Boston, attempted to give Zimmer some friendly advice.
“Don’t go out there yourself to lift a pitcher,” Cronin said. “Send a coach out there to do the job.” Zimmer said he told Cronin. “Thanks, Joe, but I ain’t going to hide.”
On another day, one of Zimmer’s radio critics agreed with all of the bad names a caller was calling the Boston manager.
“You’re absolutely right about that man,” the radio fellow said, “and as far as I’m concerned I’ll never mention his name on my show again. From now on I’ll refer to him as Chiang Kai-shek.
One of the reasons Zimmer isn’t going to hide, other then his native combative bent, is that the Red Sox owners like the way he has kept the team in contention. He also is insulated by knowing Fenway Park attendance can hardly suffer because of him. There are never enough seats, anyway, in that small stadium. You can scarcely buy a ticket for the rest of the season.
Zimmer said most of the hostility toward him began in Boston because of the behavior of pitcher Bill Lee, a flaky, fun-loving and articulate lefthander who finally was traded to Montreal last year.
Lee constantly pitched verbal barbs at Zimmer, to the delight of the thousands of Red Sox fans who are kids in the Boston area’s 96 colleges and universities.
“When I took Lee out of the pitching rotation in 1977, he called me a gerbil, whatever that means. (A gerbil is a burrowing rodent.) He also called me an S.O.B., and I think I know what that means. Lee had lost seven straight when I took him out of rotation.”
In Fenway Park, Zimmer pointed out, managers have to make more decisions than anywhere else. All those 12-10 games, you know. If the wind is blowing out, forget the bunt, you try to put everything up in the air. If the wind is blowing in, it’s a different game with different decisions.
After the Red Sox lost a tough one to the Yankees May 18, shortstop Rick Burleson said, “Going home, my car radio is telling everybody the season is over for the Red Sox. On May 18, imagine that. They even boo us in infield practice. That’s the way it is in this town.”
His Red Sox players are in solid support of Zimmer.
“He’s no Phi Beta Kappa, but he’s a darn good baseball man,” Coach Johnny Pesky said.
Eddie Yost, another coach, recalled a play Zimmer called in Cleveland: “Bases full of Red Sox, score tied. Who else ever called a hit-and-run play in that situation?” Yost asked.”A whiff by the batter and your man on third is running into the arms of the catcher for the second out. But Zimmer got away with it when our guy play with everybody running, enabling the run to score.”
Zimmer has been through a worse crisis. With Columbus in the Dodger farm system he was beaned, suffering a skull fracture.
“I has a blood clot and lost my speech for a long time,” Zimmer said, “and for the next year I stuttered. But it worked out all right.”
Actually it was an historic beaning. Dodger bosses Walter O’Malley and Buzzy Bavasi, who visited Zimmer in the hospital, promptly made batting helmets compulsory for all players in the Dodger organization. Both big leagues followed their lead.
At 48, Zimmer has been in baseball 31 years and played on a couple of Dodger pennant winners. He always was regarded as a gutsy hitter but never quite a regular infielder. The San Diego Padres divined him as managerial material and hired him in the early 1970s.
He played third base for Gil Hodges’ Washington Senators in 1965, hitting 15 home runs after joining the team in late June. He even volunteered to go behind the plate for two games – the first time in his major league career – when all of Hodges’ catchers were hurt. Over the years, he hit a nice total of seven grand-slam home runs.
But Boston’s “radio idiots,” are still in his craw. They keep talking, he said, about the Red Sox “collapse” last season. The Yankees did come from 14 1/2 games behind, but not because the Red Sox played bad ball under Zimmer. To get into a pennant playoff with the Yankees, Boston actually won its last eight games of the season. Some collapse.