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Yankees struggle to accept passing of Zimmer

Jeter, Girardi reflect fondly, emotionally on beloved coach, who aided in four titles

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NEW YORK -- The terrible news filtered into the Yankees' dugout in the middle innings on Wednesday, and Derek Jeter took his final at-bats of the night knowing that his friend Don Zimmer -- remembered as a coach, mentor and lucky charm during his time in the Yankees' dugout -- was now gone.

Standing at his locker in the clubhouse of this Yankee Stadium, Jeter fielded questions about the passing of the 83-year-old baseball icon. He lasted 128 seconds before halting the interview, pivoting and staring at the wall to collect his emotions.

"That's a tough one to swallow," Jeter said. "Everyone knows how much Zim has meant, not only to our organization, but to baseball as a whole. Your thoughts and prayers go out to his family. That's tough news."

Having spent six decades in the game, nearly every club could claim some level of connection to Zimmer, who passed away peacefully on Wednesday in Florida. For a generation of Yankees fans, he was Joe Torre's dynasty confidant, a key reservoir of wisdom who helped to propel the club to four World Series championships.

"Don spent a lifetime doing what he loved," Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. "He was an original -- a passionate, old-school, one-of-a-kind baseball man who contributed to a memorable era in Yankees history. The baseball community will certainly feel this loss. On behalf of our organization, we offer our deepest condolences to his wife, Soot, their two children and four grandchildren."

"Zim was around when I first came up," Jeter said. "He's someone that taught me a lot about the game. He's been around, and he's pretty much seen everything. His stories, his experiences, he was close to my family and good to my family. We'll miss him."

"Great baseball man. A baseball lifer. He was a mentor to me. I had him 10 out of my first 11 years in the big leagues, so wherever he went, I went. I always thought he looked like my grandfather. Built a lot alike; same height, same forearms. My grandfather had a full head of white hair, though. That was probably the biggest difference."
-- Joe Girardi


Zimmer, who coached for the Yankees from 1996-2003, was the reason that Joe Girardi had the opportunity to wear pinstripes. When Torre was hired as manager for the '96 season, Zimmer lobbied team brass about the need for a sharp defensive catcher to handle the pitching staff. He recommended that the team sign Girardi.

"Great baseball man. A baseball lifer," Girardi said. "He was a mentor to me. I had him 10 out of my first 11 years in the big leagues, so wherever he went, I went. I always thought he looked like my grandfather. Built a lot alike; same height, same forearms. My grandfather had a full head of white hair, though. That was probably the biggest difference."

Girardi called Zimmer his first big league manager in the summer of 1989, suiting up in the cramped home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. The Cubs were the last of Zimmer's four managerial stops in the big leagues, and for Girardi, spending any time next to Zimmer served as a crash course in Managing 101.

"He taught me a lot about this game," Girardi said. "He gave me my first opportunity, I'll never forget that. He told me with a week to go [in Spring Training] that I had made the club in 1989, but I couldn't tell anybody. I'm thinking, 'How am I going to do that?'

"I was scared to death to tell anyone; I really was. The only person I told was [Girardi's wife] Kim. I waited a few days to tell my father, because I knew he wouldn't be able to keep it hush-hush. It's going to be really strange not to see him."

Girardi recalled watching Zimmer dance on a table after one win, then watching with amusement as the table -- and Zimmer -- came crashing to the floor. He'd agree that Zimmer deserves his place among the game's all-time characters.

During the 1999 playoffs, he showed up wearing a green Army helmet the next day after a Chuck Knoblauch foul ball whizzed into the Yankees' dugout, striking him in the face. In one ritual, Jeter used to rub Zimmer's tummy and bald head for luck, something both parties seemed to relish.

"I could sit here and talk to you for days about Zim," Jeter said.

He was also fiercely competitive; he wanted his teams to win on the field, sometimes with blind passion. No one will ever forget Zimmer's tumble to the Fenway Park turf during the 2003 American League Championship Series after he had charged at Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez during a benches-clearing incident.

"That was him. He was a fighter," Jeter said. "He was intense. That exemplifies him. He was into the game, and he was fun to be around."

It wasn't limited to baseball, either. Girardi recalled how Zimmer would flash that same fire playing cards.

"That's one of the things he taught me: it's OK to be competitive in things that you do besides the game," Girardi said.

Zimmer, who spent the past 11 seasons as a senior advisor with the Rays, had been hospitalized for the last two months. Jeter said that he spoke to Zimmer before his April 16 heart surgery.

It was the last of their many conversations, and Jeter said that losing Zimmer's unique outlook is what will leave the largest void.

"He was always positive and liked to have fun," Jeter said. "This can be a long season, so that's what you'll miss. I will miss him."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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