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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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The package of Red Man Tobacco is back in his hip pocket. Don Zimmer gave up the stuff in spring training, but now, quite unexpectedly, he's the manager of a team, the Chicago Cubs, that is driving for the championship of the National League East, and, well, a good chew is a good chew. His face again resembles that of a lopsided man in the moon as he stares across the diamond at Wrigley Field, seeing the things that only someone with 58-year-old baseball eyes can see.

"I had some heartburn one day in the spring," he said not long ago. "So I just give up chewing. About a week ago, though, I pick up a package. Just started. It's a disgusting habit." He spits into a Red Man puddle on the dugout floor. A reporter standing nearby says she wishes she hadn't worn white shoes.

The story this time is that Zimmer has a bunch of young guys who are doing things they aren't supposed to do. And now half of Chicago is wearing clothing with a Cub insignia on it. Not only that, but Zimmer's picture is selling fried chicken from posters all over the city, and the nightly news gives updates on how much weight he has lost on his six-week-old diet. As of Sunday, he had shed 26 pounds.

"I say I'm going on a diet," he says. "Some guy writes it in the paper. So these people, Nutri/System, call up the team publicity department. The next day this beautiful blonde shows up and gives me a whole program. All their food. My wife cooks it for me while I'm home, and on the road they have it waiting for me. I just go into the hotel dining room and say, 'I'm Mr. Zimmer, and I'm supposed to have a special meal.' Everything's ready for me."

Zimmer's wife, Soot, is also on the diet. She figured it was just as easy to cook the special food for two as for one. She has lost 15 pounds, but she says Don, who weighed 215 when he began dieting, has an advantage. He has more weight to lose.

"I feel good," says Zimmer. So good, in fact, that, after the Cubs' 10-inning 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 27, he did a standing jump onto a metal table in the Chicago clubhouse. The table buckled at one end, but he made the jump. He says he'll pay for the table. "I'll pay for a table every day," he says, "if we can keep winning games like that."

His hair is cut, as usual, in a boot-camp special, buzzed down to a gray nub. He sometimes rubs his hands across his head, as if trying to coax answers from a fuzzy crystal ball. This is the way he has worn his hair for 40 professional seasons, through all kinds of changes in style. Soot says she doesn't know anymore where the hair ends and baldness begins. She suspects she may never learn.

"I'm just saying we put ourselves in position," says Zimmer, trying to explain the staying power of the Cubs, who at week's end had a five-game lead in their division. "If I had said to you at the beginning of the season that we'd be here now, they'd have locked me up in Chattahoochee. But here we are."

Patience has been Zimmer's greatest asset this year. The young guys—players like outfielders Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith—have made a lot of young-guy mistakes, but Zimmer has nodded and said that's how young guys learn. "He's a laid-back manager," says Walton. "We've done a lot of things he could have exploded on, but he never did. I was thrown out four times on the bases in a week. He called me into his office. I expected him to explode, but he just told me to calm down."

"You listen to him closely, and he's doing just the right thing with a young team," says 33-year-old Rick Sutcliffe. "Whenever we win, he gives all the credit to the players. Whenever we lose, he takes all the heat."

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