Don Zimmer was fired as manager of the Red Sox last September by what could be called popular aclaim. Fenway Park fans had taken to booing him on sight; for example, when the little round man handed the starting batting order to the umpires at home plate. Zimmer said, "I told my daughter not to go to any more games if she couldn't stop crying."
He was less the victim of the Red Sox' fourth-place finish in the AL East than of another factor, a more powerful one. Never underestimate the reach of those idiot radio talk shows. Two in Boston turned the whole city against Zimmer, constantly second-guessing his moves with the Red Sox, and inviting equally idiot callers-in to heap their own abuse of him.
"They didn't know a baseball from a basketball," Zimmer was saying this week. When Boston station WITS also put the knocks on him, that was the same station for which he was doing a daily pregame show. "They never let up on me," Zimmer said. The Red Sox ownership weakened and released him with a year still left on his contract. He could have sat out this season with pay.
Zimmer is managing the Texas Rangers now. They didn't exactly grab him on the first bounce. "It was six weeks after I phoned their general manager, Eddie Robinson, to say I was available that I heard from him. He said they might be interested in me."
Robinson said, "In those six weeks, when I was looking for a manager, I called up almost every friend I had in baseball, people who opinions I wanted. It was Don Zimmer's name that kept popping up most of time, from baseball people whose judgment I respect. They were all emphatic about him as a baseball man. I asked Zimmer to come in for a talk and hired him on the spot."
The estimated $100,000 the Rangers offered was satisfactory to Zimmer, but at first the mere one-year contract wasn't. "Then I told Eddie, 'What the hell, let's go.'"
Zimmer wanted back into the only game he has ever known. He never has drawn a pay check outside of baseball in the 33 years since he signed on at $150 a month as a 17-year-old infielder with Cambridge (Md.) in the Eastern Shore League. The offseason found him playing and managing in winter baseball somewhere -- Cuba, Puerto Rico, wherever. He has two World Series rings to prove he was there with the 1954-59 Brooklyn-Los Angeles Dodgers.
Twenty nine years ago, he married Jean Carol Bauerle at home plate before a game in Elmira, N.Y., when the manager thought it would help the gate. They advertised it and 7,000 paying fans showed up to applaud the newlyweds. Zimmer could recommend a minor-league ballpark as a salubrious setting for a wedding Jean Carol still is his wife.
If Zimmer has not been the most famous manager in baseball, he has been, physically, the most unmistakable. His 5-foot-9 frame, leaning toward the portly, is accentuated by the snuggly fitting double-knits that have come into the game, and out of which Zimmer is trying to burst. It is a figure topped by a baseball cap moulded to his bald, blond skull, and perched between two slightly protruding pink ears.
Zimmer is not only stout of figure, he is also stout of heart. At Boston, he weathered the boos without a single scornful gesture. And there was plentiful evidence of Zimmer's spirit before that.
In 1953, when he was in the Dodger farm system and leading the St. Paul club in hitting, with 23 home runs, a Jim Kirk pitch hit Zimmer in the head. He was unconscious for 13 days and did not return to the lineup that season. That was only one of his rough episodes.
On June 23, 1956, Zimmer couldn't escape a fast ball from Hal Jeffcoat of the Cincinnati Reds. It shattered his cheek. "They were also afraid of a detached retina and had me in a total blindfold for six weeks," Zimmer said. "After that, six weeks in pinhole glasses. I couldn't bend over to put on my shoes or socks because of that retina condition. They wouldn't let my children near me, afraid I'd get jarred." Two seasons later, he hit 17 homers for the Dodgers.
He says he thinks he can help the Rangers. "From all I hear," Zimmer said, "they were throwing away ball games last season (the Rangers finished 20 1/2 games out of it). Did the wrong things, stupid mistakes. My teams may lose but they won't make many stupid mistakes." In Pompano, he's at the park every day at 7:30 a.m., telling his coaches not to let up on fundamentals.
In three full seasons as Red Sox manager, Zimmer's teams had an estimable 287-197 record, for a .593 average, but last year he was catching if from the radio idiots and Fenway fans even when he had the Red Sox within five games of the Yankees in August, despite a tattered pitching staff.
"Then, with my pitching going bad, Fred Lynn breaks a toe and is out for the season, and the next day (Carl) Yastrzemski breaks a rib. And with our pitching shot, I'm still expected to overtake the Yankees," Zimmer said. "They were really letting me have it."
When Zimmer was fired by Boston, George Steinbrenner offered him a job as third-base coach with the Yankees. "Steinbrenner was good about it. He said the job would be waiting for me if I couldn't find one as a manager. I want this known about Steinbrenner."
Zimmer said nothing about the Yankee third-base coaching job being a hazard to the occupant's peace of mind. Last summer, Steinbrenner summarily replaced third-base coach Mike Ferrara for waving a runner home, and indicated he is looking over the shoulder of all his third-base coaches.
The security has not been so good for Texas Ranger managers, either. Zimmer is their seventh since Bob Short moved the Washington Senators to Arlington in 1971.
But Zimmer will not be working for the mercurial Brad Corbett, the former owner who sold out last season to Eddie Chiles.
Under Corbett, the duties of the Ranger managers were not well-defined. Once during the Frank Lucchesi reign, Corbett announced the Dallas writer Randy Galloway a trade he had just made with Detroit for outfielder Willie Horton. Galloway later asked Manager Lucchesi how he like the trade. "What trade?" Lucchesi asked. Informed that it was pitcher Steve Foucault for Willie Horton, Lucchesi said, "Don't tell me. Foucault was scheduled to pitch tonight."
In Texas, Zimmer will be reunited with pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, who clashed with Zimmer when he was with the Red Sox in 1976-77. "Jenkins called me 'Buffalo Head' in Boston," Zimmer said. "Then he explained to everybody that the buffalo was the dumbest animal in the world. But I knew he was only sore because I took him out of the pitching rotation. He has already come to me with the Rangers and we both said, 'Let's forget the past.'"
With the Rangers, Zimmer says he has the good pitching he lacked at Boston. "It's the best staff I've had in my seven years of managing. It's not great but it's good, and so that puts a lot up to me." He's talking about Jenkins, Doc Medich, Danny Darwin, Jon Matlack and Rick Honeycutt. Then there's his third baseman, Buddy Bell. Only George Brett is better with the bat, and with the glove it's a tight fit.
Zimmer admits he could use a Dave Winfield in his dubious outfield. He had Winfield in camp as a rookie out of the University of Minnesota when he managed San Diego. "Buzzie Bavasi (general manager) asked which minor league club we should send him to and I said, 'Hell, he's got all the tools. Let's play him now.'"
The Rangers have had a quick change of status since their purchase by Chiles, an enthusiastic multimillionaire. Under Corbett, the team had a credit crunch, was behind on its hotel bills, was dunned by airplane companies and had to sell ball players like Jenkins to help meet the payroll Corbett had overloaded.
Chiles, big in oil rigs and other resources, has outfitted the players' clubhouse with lounge chairs in front of each locker. For Zimmer, whose own lockers used to be fronted with rickety, three-legged stools the new climate is overwhelming. Chiles has ordered Nautilis equipment for the clubhouse, a separate room for films, and has engaged Mike Fitzsimmons, a physical-education expert who travels with the team.
Zimmer says the lounge chairs and other new stuff is a bit strange to him but that he is willing to move with the times.Best of all, he says they've assured him that in Arlington, Tex., the radio climate is friendly.