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Leigh Montville
September 25, 1989
This is the malleable mug of Don Zimmer, a 40-year baseball man who has sagely managed the Cubs to the top
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September 25, 1989

The Face Of Genius

This is the malleable mug of Don Zimmer, a 40-year baseball man who has sagely managed the Cubs to the top

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Travel long enough and heartbreak can become just another anecdote. In this case heartbreak came in the form of Dent, a light-hitting shortstop, slapping a fly ball into the net at Fenway Park during the American League East playoff in 1978 to win the division for the Yankees and send Zimmer's Red Sox—who at one point in that season had a 10-game lead—to oblivion. You would think that Zimmer's idea of hell would be a room with Dent's picture above the mantel. Nah. For him, the defeat was merely another stop. "One pitch, Mike Torrez to Bucky Dent," says Zimmer. "I sometimes think if it weren't for that one pitch I might still be in Boston." He shrugs.

Until this season, 1978 was Zimmer's last turn as a manager in the national spotlight of a pennant race. His stay in Boston ended badly, with the fans booing him whenever he went to the mound in '79 and his free-thinking pitching staff going into rebellion—led by starter Bill Lee, who nicknamed him Gerbil. Still, Zimmer says the time he spent in Boston was as pleasant as any time he has spent anywhere in the sport. He also says that about Chicago. The common denominator: baseball.

"I suppose I had no idea what I was getting into," says Soot. "I was going to be a nurse. I was going to Elmira to get married, finish my training."

The wedding pictures show a young guy in a white Palm Beach suit marrying a young woman in a gown. The best man was second baseman Jack Lillis, the other half of the Pioneers' double-play combination. The other players formed an archway with bats.

"Ed Roebuck was a pitcher on that team," says Zimmer. "One day he says he's going to get married, and I say I am, too. The general manager, Spencer Harris, hears about it. He had had some home-plate weddings in Fort Worth and says the fans like 'em. He asks us to do it. Roebuck's Catholic and Polish, and his family doesn't like the idea. I don't care. Roebuck gets married in the morning in a church. I get married at night at home plate. Roebuck pitches the game and then gets three days off for a honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Me? The next night I got to hit against Gene Conley."

Soot ponders their wedding night. "I think he got a couple of hits," she says. "I can look it up."

The one mystery in this single-minded baseball life came early: What if? Every life has at least one "what if," but Zimmer's is more poignant than most. He was on his way to becoming a standout major league shortstop when a pitched ball left him half-dead at home plate on a July night in Columbus, Ohio, in 1953. Zimmer says he doesn't think about it. Never has. "I remember my doctor telling me when I left the hospital that when you have brain surgery a lot of things happen to you," says Zimmer. "He said, 'You ain't never going to be the player you were.' I said, 'That's it,' and I never thought about it again."

The game began in twilight. A righthander named Jim Kirk was pitching for the Columbus Red Birds. Zimmer was having a season of seasons for the Triple A St. Paul Saints. His numbers were so good—23 homers and a .300 average—that he would be voted the American Association's Rookie of the Year without playing another game.

The first pitch was a fastball. Zimmer had trouble picking it out of the background. "I almost didn't see that," he remembers telling the Columbus catcher.

"Yeah, it's tough tonight," said the catcher.

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