Leyland on Zimmer: He’s in a better place
Jim Leyland had plans to be in Michigan this weekend. He was going to take part in a charity event with former University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr in Ann Arbor on Saturday, then head over to Comerica Park for the Sunday night game between the Tigers and Red Sox. Then came news last night that Don Zimmer passed away.
It was not a shock for Leyland, who had been in touch with Zimmer and his wife every day. The way Zimmer’s health had deteriorated, as much as Leyland is going to miss him, he’s trying to look at the bright side.
“You hate to say it, but he’s in a better place,” Leyland said. “It was starting to get tough and had been tough for a little while. I didn’t want to see him suffer.”
So instead of returning to Michigan, Leyland will fly to Florida this weekend to take part in services celebrating Zimmer’s life. He’ll head down there with plenty of memories.
Their friendship lasted over 30 years. It started when Leyland finally broke into the big leagues as the third-base coach on Tony La Russa’s White Sox. Leyland had finally gotten out of the minors and was a manager in the making. Zimmer was coming off his third stint as a Major League manager. Zimmer was a 12-year Major League veteran as a player, while Leyland never got out of the low minors as a catcher.
Somehow, Leyland said Thursday, Zimmer took a liking to him, and they hit it off.
“I think Don Zimmer knew that I was in the minor leagues for 18 years and then I got a call to the big leagues with the White Sox as a coach,” Leyland said, “and I think he respected the fact. I think he respected that and all of a sudden he starts spending time with me, talking to me. We’d spend time in Spring Training. I’d go up to Connecticut with him for a big, big [charity] dinner. We would have dinner together in the winter. We would go to the race track together.
“We were close. I guess other than Gene Lamont from a friend standpoint, and probably Tony La Russa, he was probably the closest friend I had. I just thought the world of him. I think he saw me as an underdog that never played.”
They were friends who became opponents a few years later. Leyland got his first managerial opportunity with the Pirates in 1986, followed by Zimmer’s next shot with the Cubs in 1988. Their friendship remained intact.
“When he managed the Cubs and I was in Pittsburgh, he’d come to my house for lunch,” Leyland said, “and we’d laugh and tell jokes and everything. Four hours later, we’d be trying to kick the shit out of each other. It was almost like he was an older brother, a father. But I think he touched a lot of people like that.”
They never served on the same coaching staff, but their friendship also never wavered. For Zimmer, Leyland was a best friend. For Leyland, Zimmer was not only a friend, but an advisor. When Leyland stepped away from managing following a rough season in Colorado, Zimmer wasn’t happy, and he pushed for Leyland to give it another opportunity.
“He was mad at me when I walked away the first time,” Leyland said. “He said, ‘You belong managing. What are you doing?’ So he was thrilled when I heard from the Tigers. “He said, ‘Well, you better take it.’ And then we’d play Tampa Bay and he was always pulling against me as hard as we could. He was true blue, man. He was pulling for the Rays. But deep down inside, I think it didn’t bother him we won a few games.”
Whenever the Tigers went to Tampa Bay during the season, Zimmer and Leyland were either getting together for lunch or going to the track. Spring Training was much the same. He was a good friend, and one of baseball’s great personalities, but Leyland hopes people remember him for being a tremendous baseball mind as well.
“Initially, people see him and they see his physical appearance and the Popeye stuff and his round face, and I think to some people he became a character in a great way,” Leyland said. “But I don’t know that the people that are fans really knew how good of a baseball guy this was. I think they just characterized him as a character, as a fun guy. I hope they have an appreciation how good of a baseball guy he was, how good of a manager he was, how good of a coach he was. He was a really good influence on a lot of people in baseball, and I hope people appreciate that. I just hope they realize that. He influenced a lot of careers. I know that for a fact.”