My Hour with Popeye
Baseball lost one of its true good guys and beloved characters Wednesday evening when Don Zimmer passed away at the age of 83. “Popeye,” as he was known to baseball insiders and fans alike due to his incredibly chubby cheeks and jowls, was proud of the fact that he never cashed a paycheck outside of the baseball world, having spent his entire 66-year working life doing what he loved. His playing career began in 1949 when he was signed as an amateur free agent by Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers, and continued until 1965 when he retired as a Washington Senator. In between he saw stops with the Cubs, Mets and Reds mostly playing as an utility infielder. After his 12 year playing career Zimmer went to the bench and either managed or coached teams for another 40+ years, including skippering the Padres, Rangers, Red Sox and Cubs. Enduring later images of “Zim” include him sitting next to Joe Torre in the Yankees dugout as Torre’s trusted adviser, his on-field tussle with Pedro Martinez, and the self-mocking green army helmet he wore after getting drilled in the face by a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball during the 1999 playoffs. But it was when he managing the Chicago Cubs in 1990 that I got the chance to meet him, the year after he led the North-Siders to 93 wins, the playoffs and was named NL manager of the year.
I had stopped into Ranalli’s in Lincoln Park for a late night pizza at the bar after one of my oh-so-long graduate school night classes. There was only one other customer in the place and he too was planted at the bar, his back to me when I walked in, his focus on the mounted TV showing Cubs highlights from their game earlier that day. I sat a stool away from him and had made a comment regarding the replay of a late-game error made by Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston, something along the lines of “that was a killer.” He turned away from the TV and looked at me and said “you ain’t kidding.” There was no mistaking that face, they truly broke the mold after it was made.
To say I was a little bit taken aback would be an understatement. But Zim continued the conversation, asking if I was a Cubs fan. He probably didn’t know what he was getting himself into as I proceeded to tell him about all the moments I had witnessed over the years at the Friendly Confines, but he was a willing conversationalist. He talked about how much he loved being in the Cubs dugout, and that the organization, players and fans had given him a chance to prove that he actually could manage, after being fired by the Red Sox during the 1980 season. I don’t recall all the specifics of our talk during those sixty or so minutes, but I know it was almost all about baseball, as was Zimmer’s life (he even was married at home plate). He talked about the greatness of Ryne Sandberg, and what an honor it was to be able to call Wrigley Field his office. You could see how much he loved talking the game, even if it was with just someone like little ‘ol me.
I could have spent countless hours chatting up Zim, but after an hour or so he had to “head it home” since the Cubs had “another early one” the next day. He asked the bartender for his and my tabs, paid for both and said he hoped to see me soon at Wrigley. I never did run into Zim again and hadn’t really thought about the night for years now, but when the news came out that he had died late Wednesday I knew that baseball was truly poorer for its loss.