Zimmer is a young man on this team, 26, and a fascinating study in courage. In 1953, when he was with St. Paul, Zimmer was batting .300 and leading the American Association in home runs and runs batted in, when he was hit in the head with a pitched ball. His skull was fractured, and he nearly died. It took him months to regain full control of his speech and his reflexes. But he did, and he returned to baseball. He moved up from the minors to the Dodgers and for three seasons has been a valued utility player for Brooklyn, though Zimmer resents the role of substitute and burns with an angry ambition to play regularly, every day. Last year, early in the season, he was struck full in the face by another pitched ball. This time he nearly lost his sight: the retina of his left eye had become detached. He was forced to lie completely immobile for several weeks while the eye slowly healed, and it was said that almost certainly his career as a baseball player was over.
ZIMMERS DON'T FLINCH
But here he was, back again, playing for the Dodgers again, and batting now against the wild, fast right-hander. Bunning's pitch came wailing in, high, inside, right at Zimmer's head. People who knew Zimmer's history flinched. Zimmer didn't. He fell to the ground like a cat, under the pitch, safe. He popped up to his feet and moved back into the batter's box at once, his bat cocked.
"He's been beaned twice, hasn't he?" a Detroit man said in the press box. He was thinking, along with everyone else, of Reese's arm and Zimmer's head and wondering how the player could possibly generate enough nerve to face the pitcher again.
"Watch him," a Brooklyn writer said. "He won't give an inch. The crazy bastard." He said these last words proudly, affectionately.
Bunning threw. Zimmer stepped into the pitch, swung and hit a three-run home run over the left field fence.
"Guts," the Detroit man said, almost to himself.
The Tigers rallied later on to bring the score to 3-2, and they loaded the bases with no one out in the eighth. In to pitch for Brooklyn came a tall, lanky Cuban named Rene Gutierrez y Valdes, who won 22 games in the Pacific Coast League last year. Valdes' nickname, he will tell you, is L�tigo, The Whip, and he exudes confidence. "I want to pitch only against Yankees," he announced, when he finally reported to camp after brashly holding out for a higher salary. Why the Yankees? he was asked. "If I beat Yankees I make team," he argued, logically.
But The Whip made his debut against the Tigers instead, and the bases were loaded and no one was out. The tying run was on third base. L�tigo pitched. The first batter fouled to the first baseman. One out. The second popped up to the infield. Two out. The third also popped to the infield. Three out. The Whip retired three more Tigers in succession in the ninth, and the Dodgers had the ball game 3-2, thanks principally to Don Zimmer and Rene Valdes.
It was only a spring training game, but suddenly the status of the Brooklyn Dodgers was out of focus again. Their great players were old, true enough, but now it appeared that it just wasn't that simple. There were some young players in the background, and their skills and energy could have a significant bearing on the success or failure this year of what almost everyone has come to think of as the old, old Dodgers.