My First Encounter With a Humble Legend
Renegade Note: Everyone has their own Don Zimmer moments within or outside the game. The following is my first encounter with the beloved baseball soul who held the game close to his heart and embraced it until the end. We will miss you Zim.
It was late January of ’72 when I met Zimmer as he and his wife Soot for the first time as they were out and about the town from their then home situated on the finger-shaped islands of Treasure Island.
I didn’t know the first time he drove into the station he was even a ballplayer. People in that time either dressed up or wore cotton shirts and pants more than the T’s and jeans fashionable today. And M L B merchandised clothing seemed more reserved for the diamond than plastered across your body as every day clothes when you traveled.
I was around 11 years old when I first met Don Zimmer. I always idolized my Dad and worked a lot of after school times and weekends at our Union 76 gas station (Wittig’s Motor Pool) on a popular crossroads towards the beaches here in St. Petersburg, Fl.
Back then every 6 pump demanded Full Service attention. That meant as a young kid I would wash windshields, check air pressure in tires and put the regular or premium gasoline nozzle into that car’s tank. I loved doing my duties in a scaled down shirt emblazoned with AAA patches, the orange Union 76 globe patch and the name “Cliff” sewn in above my breast pocket.
As I was under the hood checking the brake fluid, wiping down the oil dipstick and checking for corrosion buildup on the battery cables. I noticed Zimmer’s eyes peering at me through the small space between the hood and the windshield section of the car. He was laughing and seemed to get a kick out of this young kid going gangbusters servicing his beautiful automobile.
After I heard the click of the gas nozzle and finished filling the car’s gas tank. I then approached and told Zimmer the amount and awaited the payment for the gas.
He asked me if we, (the station) every got large used tire tubes he could use as an inexpensive but fun float for when his family headed out to the Gulf of Mexico. I assured him I could help him for honest price. I saw that most of them were not very large in size and remembered I had a huge truck tube outside by the alignment rack I used as a baseball aid.
Zimmer watched as I went through the moves of making sure the tube was filled, had no leaks then pronounced without hesitation, “I can sell this fine tube to you for .75 cents”. Now do not forget, a gallon of regular gas at that time cost between 39-45 cents by itself, so for the price of about 2 gallons of fine gas, he could have hours of enjoyment stretched out on that huge truck tube.
I finished the exchange and Zimmer presented the money to my Dad for the gas and the tube and Zimmer asked why there were white lines on the inside circle of the tube. My Dad explained it was my “throwing tube” to practice my aim and accuracy as I played Third Base and sometimes Shortstop for my Little League team.
Zimmer just looked at me and asked if I was good. He looked at my Dad then me and I told him I wanted to be the next Brooks Robinson and Zimmer smiled telling me that “Brooks was a great ballplayer to watch and copy parts of his defensive style”.
As we opened the trunk to put in the tube I saw a few gloves, a stack of bats and a bag of worn and clay stained baseballs. Zimmer quickly said he also loved the game of baseball and worked out with his young son when he had the time. At no time did he pump out his chest or proclaim he was an ex-MLB player.
At that moment he seemed to me to be just an average guy who also loved baseball and seemed to be passing on his love for the game to his own son. After Zimmer had left the station headed back west towards Treasure Island, my Dad told me who he was, and that he was a former M L B player who had played for teams like Brooklyn, Chicago, New York and the Senators.
I was upset I had wasted an opportunity to chat or get a few pointers from a big league infielder, but knew he was also a loyal customer and would be back.
He even came in for fuel before he headed off to San Diego that spring to begin his Managerial career with the San Diego Padres that spring.
I always felt at ease around Zimmer, never got the “better than me” vibe or saw any irritation from him when I asked questions or wanted advice. That is what initially got me to follow his career and take every moment possible to talk with him when I became the Rays Pepsi rep and had a little extra access around Tropicana Field or the Rays Spring complex.
Every time I have met Zimmer since that day in 1972 I start off with asking him if he wanted “Regular or Premium today”. It always takes a moment, but he always chuckles and asked how I was doing while extending his hand for a firm shake.
I will miss Zimmer as much for his humanity as his storytelling and bits of wisdom bestowed upon another generation.
There has never been anyone like him around the game of baseball before, and there truly will not be another beloved soul like Zim to ever grace the game again.