ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- Don Zimmer, a most popular fixture in professional baseball for 66 years as a manager, player, coach and executive, died Wednesday. He was 83.
Zimmer was still working for the Tampa Bay Rays as a senior adviser, and the team said he died at a hospital in nearby Dunedin.
Zimmer had been in a rehabilitation center in Florida since having seven hours of heart surgery in mid-April.
"Today we all lost a national treasure and a wonderful man," Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said in a statement.
Zimmer started out as a minor league infielder in 1949. Easily recognizable for the big chaw that always seemed to be in his cheek, he went to enjoy one of the longest-lasting careers in baseball history.
Zimmer played alongside Jackie Robinson for the only Brooklyn Dodgers team to win the World Series, was on the field with the original New York Mets, nearly managed the Boston Red Sox to a championship in the 1970s and was Joe Torre’s right-hand man as the bench coach with the New York Yankees’ most recent dynasty.
"I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me. He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game," Torre said in a statement.
"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," he said.
A career .235 hitter in the big leagues, numbers could never define all that Zimmer meant to the game. He did have tremendous success, too -- he earned six World Series rings and went to the postseason 19 times.
Zimmer’s No. 66 jersey had been worn recently by longtime Tampa Bay third base coach Tom Foley in tribute. The Rays hosted the Miami Marlins on Wednesday night, and Foley was crying in the dugout.
Earlier this season, the Rays hung a banner in the front of the press box at Tropicana Field that simply read "ZIM."
There was a moment of silence at Dodger Stadium for Zimmer before Los Angeles played the Chicago White Sox.
"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," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
Zimmer was married at home plate during a minor league game in 1951 -- he is survived by his wife, who went by "Soot." Along the way, he played for Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel and coached Derek Jeter -- quite a span, by any major league measure.
It wasn’t always easy, either. Early in his career, he was beaned by a fastball and doctors had to put metal screws in his head. Many years later, Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez tossed Zimmer to the ground during a fight between the Red Sox and Yankees at Fenway Park in the playoffs.
Zimmer spent time in a lot of uniforms. He played for the Dodgers, Mets, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati and Washington. He managed San Diego, Boston, Texas and the Cubs.
"Probably the best baseball man I knew," Billy Connors, who coached under Zimmer on the Cubs, told The Associated Press on Wednesday night.
"We had a lot of great times. I loved listening to him every day," he said.
Yankees executive Hank Steinbrenner echoed that sentiment.
"I loved Zim. I loved his passion. He was a great, great guy. He was a great baseball guy," he said. "Everybody loved him."
Steinbrenner, son of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, said Torre and Zimmer were the "perfect team" during New York’s run that brought four titles in a five-year span.
"Joe was low-keyed. Zim would get fired up. He was a bench coach for real," Steinbrenner said. "He was an extremely important part of the 1990s success."
Zimmer hit 91 home runs and had 352 RBIs over 12 seasons.
"It’s a sad day for the game of baseball," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said after a 3-2 loss at San Diego. "Don impacted lives from the time he put a uniform on in the minor leagues until today."
Zimmer is survived by his wife; son Thomas, a scout with the San Francisco Giants; daughter Donna, and four grandchildren.
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