Monday, March 1, 2010

Don Zimmer: A baseball life in Cuba

Don Zimmer was honored earlier this month for his 62-year career in baseball, a resume that includes:

  • 12 major-league seasons as a player, including as a member of the Dodgers' only World Series-winning team in Brooklyn (1955) and as the first of 139 player who have played third base for the Mets (1962).

  • Managing the Padres, Red Sox, Rangers and Cubs.

  • Bench coach under Joe Torre during the Yankees dynasty of 1996-2000.

A less celebrated aspect of Zimmer's life in baseball came in Cuba's winter league, playing for Cienfuegos and Marianao from 1951-53.

Zimmer was home in the cold and snow of Cincinnati when Al Campanis from the Dodgers called with the offer to play in Havana.

"He said, ‘Do you want to go to Cuba to play the rest of the winter in the Cuban League?’ I said, ‘Yeah, my goodness,’ ” Zimmer said during an interview in the spring of 2008. “I got on an airplane with my wife the next day. Billy Herman, a Hall of Famer, was my manager [with Cienfuegos]. He called me in the office and said, ‘How long will it take you to get ready to play in a game?’ I’m 22 years old. I said, ‘What? I’ll play tonight.’ ”

Zimmer never got to celebrate a pennant in Cuba, helping lead Cienfuegos and Marianao to second-place finishes in back-to-back seasons.

Despite that, Zimmer thought Havana "was heaven. ... It was a resort, I mean, what a gorgeous place. They had beautiful casinos. You wanted to go to the casinos after the game, you went. They had great restaurants. I’ve always said that Cuba, the two years that I spent there, were very special in my baseball life. And playing with and against the guys that I played with, it was special.”

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