Joe Girardi has been linked to the Yankees as a player, broadcaster, coach and manager for the last 18 years.
The primary reason Girardi became a Yankee following the 1995 season was because of a recommendation from Don Zimmer, who had just been invited by Joe Torre to be the bench coach.
It was Zimmer who was Girardi’s first major league manager on a surprising Cubs team in 1989 and then coached him in Colorado.
So while Girardi talked about everything that went wrong during a 7-4 loss to Oakland Wednesday night, he also learned the news Zimmer had passed away at 83 two months after undergoing heart surgery.
“Great baseball man, a baseball lifer, a mentor to me,” Girardi said. “I had him 10 out of my first 11 years in the big leagues. Wherever he went, I went and I always thought he looked like my grandfather — built a lot alike, the same height [and] the same forearms. My grandfather had a full head of white hair, that’s probably the biggest difference. He taught me a lot about this game, a close friend and I’m going to miss him.”
Even though they had not been together since their days with the Yankees, Girardi and Zimmer were still close. It was hard for Girardi not to maintain that closeness for someone who shaped everything that led him to managing the Yankees.
“My relationship with him continued to be the same,” Girardi said. “I talked to him all the time on the phone. I’d see him every time we went to Tampa, see him sitting in the stands during games. It’s going to be really strange not to see him. Our relationship has always been close. As I said, I looked to him as a mentor.
“He taught me a lot about this game. He gave my first opportunity. I’ll never forget that.”
While Girardi will never forget coming up to the majors with Zimmer as his first manager, Derek Jeter will never forget the experience of being with Zimmer for his first eight seasons.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” Jeter said. “Everyone knows how much Zim’s meant to our organization but to baseball as a whole and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. It’s tough news. I found out about halfway through the game.
“Zim was around when I first came up. He was someone that taught me a lot about the game. He’s been around, he’s pretty much seen everything. His stories, his experiences, he was close to my family, he was good to my family and I will miss him.”
Zimmer’s death ended a life that saw him play with Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn and become an original Met in 1962. He also managed the 1978 Red Sox in the famous Bucky Dent game and coached the Yankees in 1983 and 1986 under Billy Martin and Lou Piniella before returning to be Torre’s right-hand man for eight seasons that included four championships and six appearances in the World Series.
The Yankees were about midway through the game when news began to trickle out on Twitter that Zimmer had died, which was confirmed by the YES Network broadcast. At the time, the Yankees had a 4-2 lead.
Once it was confirmed, both commissioner Bud Selig and Torre released statements.
“Like everyone in Major League Baseball, I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend Don Zimmer, one of our game’s most universally beloved figures,” Selig said. “A memorable contributor to Baseball for more than 60 years, Don was the kind of person you could only find in the national pastime. As a player, Don experienced the joys of the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers and the struggles of the ’62 Mets. In his managerial and coaching career, this unique baseball man led the Cubs to a division crown and then, at his good friend Joe Torre’s loyal side, helped usher in a new era in the fabled history of the Yankees. On behalf of Major League Baseball and the many Clubs that ‘Popeye’ served in a distinguished Baseball life, I extend my deepest condolences to Don’s family, friends and his many admirers throughout our game.”
“I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me,” said Torre. “He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife Ali’s. We loved him. The game of Baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man.”
During his stint with the Yankees, Zimmer became famous for wearing an army helmet in a playoff game after getting hit with a foul ball and also going after Pedro Martinez during a brawl in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS. He left the Yankees in an acrimonious divorce after they lost Game 6 of the World Series against Josh Beckett and the Marlins.
“Don spent a lifetime doing what he loved,” managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said in a statement. “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.”
Zimmer joined the Rays in 2004 and served as senior advisor as they reached the heights of making the World Series in 2008.
Zimmer’s passing came on a night when Jacoby Ellsbury hit the Yankees’ first three-run home since Brian McCann on May 23 in Chicago. It gave the Yankees a 4-0 lead but four innings later it was erased as Josh Donaldson slugged a solo home run with one out in the seventh against Jose Ramirez in his major league debut.
It led to New York’s fourth straight loss. All of those defeats have come in the late innings as the Yankee bullpen has allowed 20 runs in the seventh inning or later starting with David Robertson’s second blown save in Sunday’s 7-2 loss to Minnesota.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.