Having served over 60 years at the big league level in multiple capacities–player, coach, manager, and finally senior advisor, Donald William Zimmer passed away Wednesday evening, peacefully according to his son, at the age of 83. What many people–and especially fans of the San Diego Padres don’t remember or even realize, is that the Padres gave Zim his first shot at being a big league skipper back in 1972.
While Zimmer’s track record in San Diego is quite forgettable (career 114-190 record over two seasons), his impact on his players and the organization was not. He had originally been hired to serve as a base coach for the Friars in October of 1971, but on April 27th, 1972, “Popeye” found himself the new manager of the team, taking over for the recently fired Preston Gomez. The organization had cause for hope, as the Padres’ finished Zim’s inaugural season at the helm with a winning record against both the Atlanta Braves and the start of the “Big Red Machine”, the Cincinnati Reds. Zimmer’s approach to his youthful team is best described in this excerpt from The San Diego Padres’ Encyclopedia:
“Zimmer expected his players to hustle, think baseball all the time, master the fundamentals, and eliminate mistakes. The young players gave Zimmer his source of enthusiasm. The spirited, active Zimmer constantly talked on the bench, and would do anything that it took to win.”
Unfortunately for Zim, the team failed to live up to his and Team President Buzzie Bavasi’s expectations for the 1973 season, once again finishing dead last in the National League West after hoping to at least crack the .500 mark. Zimmer was relieved of his duties in February of 1974.
One of the few franchises that still do not have a no-hitter in their team’s history, Don Zimmer can be tied to an incident during his initial campaign that most likely cost the Padres their first team no-hitter. On July 18th, 1972, San Diego starter Steve Arlin had been cruising along, having thrown 8 2/3 innings of no-hit ball. That’s when either fate or bad luck would intervene, and according to Arlin, Zimmer cost him his no-hitter.
With two strikes on the final hitter of the game, Philadelphia’s Denny Doyle, Zimmer had a hunch that Doyle might try to break up the no-no by laying down a bunt up the third base line. Zimmer waved Padres’ third baseman Dave Roberts up to the infield grass. Unfortunately for the Padres, Arlin, Roberts, and Zimmer, Doyle slapped a ball that went right over the drawn-in Roberts’ head, and shortstop Enzo Hernandez couldn’t make the play. Before the inning was over, a second hit had been given up, and Arlin finished the game with a 5-1 victory.
“I should have had my no-hitter. It was stupid how I lost my no-hitter. It was a case of Zimmer over-managing…Zimmer wasn’t the sharpest nail in the toolbox. He was growing into the job, but we knew he (Doyle) wasn’t going to bunt with two strikes. And he never bunted in his life. Roberts knew he shouldn’t have been playing in. He took a couple of steps back, but Zimmer waved him in again. If Roberts were back in his regular position, it would have been an easy play. I wasn’t happy. Everything was working.”
While his tenure in San Diego might just be pages in the Baseball Encyclopedia, his service to multiple organizations throughout the remainder of his life is felt with players today such as Derek Jeter. A member of multiple world championship teams, the game might go on without Zim, but the game and the fans of the game lost someone very special, who made the game special. Rest in peace Mr. Zimmer.