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Don Zimmer

Posted: June 19, 2014 2:02 p.m.
Updated: June 20, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Baseball is no longer the national pastime. Football long ago surpassed it in popularity here in the United States.

But if there’s ever been a guy who better symbolized Major League baseball and all that it stands for – well, excepting steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs – it was Don Zimmer, who died a couple week ago at the age of 83.

Half a century ago, pro football was just taking off, spurred by the 1958 Colts-Giants championship game, sometimes still called the best football game of all time.

And the NBA then was a helter-skelter, who-knows-whether-it-will-survive-much-longer operation – nothing like the high-flying circus it has become.

Soccer?

Few Americans paid any attention at all.

Baseball was the game. There were only 16 Major League teams, and any kid worth his salt could recite the starting line-ups for all of them.

The designated hitter rule hadn’t yet been invented, and one of the key statistics to indicate a pitcher’s value was the number of complete games he threw.

Today, that isn’t even a consideration. Now there are starters, long relievers, mid-range relievers and closers. Sheesh.

And pitchers – the starters – have to work only every fifth game these days. Back in the day, Warren Spahn and Early Wynn and those guys pitched every four days.

Not a bad job, eh?

Only a few players made enough money to avoid having second jobs in the off-season – driving trucks, selling insurance, working in factories.

The minimum Major League salary was $6,000 then. Today, it’s $500,000, and the average annual paycheck is $3.4 million. If you can play shortstop decently and hit .250, you can become rich very quickly.

OK. Back to Zimmer, who had a solid-if-unspectacular playing career that spanned 12 seasons. The guy loved baseball. Just loved it -- so much so that he got married at home plate during a minor league game in Elmira, N. Y.

When his playing days were over, he started coaching, first in the minor leagues before working his way to the big show. He managed four different teams.

Altogether, between playing, coaching and managing, he was involved in big-league baseball for 61 years.

He had his ups and downs: some questionable strategy as a manager, a few fights, a beaning. On the other hand, he built a solid reputation during more than 6 decades doing what he loved.

Somewhere between then and now, I stopped being a baseball fan, and I’m not sure why.

Maybe this column isn’t so much about Don Zimmer as it is about missing a simpler time, when men gathered in small-town coffee shops and baseball was more often than not the subject of conversation.

Nearly everybody followed the game, and that interest spawned intense conversations.

You know, it was a lot more fun talking about Yogi Berra and Ted Williams back then than it is discussing the latest school shooting or terrorist bombing today.

When baseball players were regular guys – men who made normal salaries but got to play a game for a living -- they seemed a little closer to reality. It’s difficult, is it not, to identify with someone making $10 million a year for hitting .270 and knocking in 70 runs a season?

Maybe this column isn’t even about baseball at all. Maybe it’s just about the era Don Zimmer personified. Perhaps he’s just the embodiment of the good old days, before life got so darned complicated and we had to stop letting our kids talk to strangers.

Maybe Don Zimmer is just ... well, maybe he’s just what we geezers miss about a time when kids could ride their bikes through the countryside and we didn’t have to step through metal detectors every time we got on an airplane or went to the courthouse; a time when other countries looked up to the United States and citizens here felt the nation was headed in the right direction; a time that seems forever ago.

(Glenn Tucker is the contributing editor to the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)

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