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The Zen of Zim
Baseballs, Beanballs, and Bosses
By Don Zimmer, Bill Madden
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Don Zimmer
All rights reserved.
Just Treat Me Like a Human Being
I never wanted to leave the New York Yankees. At least not when I left them or the way I left them — after the 2003 season in which we won our sixth American League pennant in eight years and beat a Boston Red Sox team — that, on paper anyway, I thought was superior in what I felt was about the greatest, most gut-wrenching seven-game series I've ever been associated with. There are a lot of reasons why that American League Championship Series was as emotionally draining as it was — and that's also why I decided I'd just had enough.
I certainly wanted to be with Joe Torre through the final year of his contract as Yankee manager. We'd been through so much together, in a late-in-my-life relationship that I will cherish forever, and I never could have envisioned myself leaving Joe as I did. Maybe that's because I never could have envisioned having another guy I considered a friend for twenty-five years turning on me for no reason, which is what George Steinbrenner did, causing me to quit the Yankees.
I probably should have seen this coming, having been around Steinbrenner all those years and observing firsthand the way he treated people. My first experience with this was in December of 1983. Steinbrenner was in the process of changing managers, a common trait of his in those days. Clyde King had finished up the season as his third manager of the 1982 season, but it was common knowledge Steinbrenner was going to hire Billy Martin, who'd just been fired in Oakland, to manage the Yankees for the third time. In the meantime, George had hired me to be Billy's third base coach, which was okay by me, because during the course of the '82 season, Billy had asked me to coach for him in Oakland for 1983.
In any case, as the December winter meetings in Honolulu were approaching, Steinbrenner had still not told Clyde King that Billy Martin was going to be the new Yankee manager. Meanwhile, Steinbrenner called me and invited me and my wife, Soot, to come with him to Hawaii. In a sense, it was a free vacation since, as a coach for a manager who had not even been named yet, I didn't think I would have much work to do with whatever business the Yankees had there.
Well, George and I and our wives got on the plane in Tampa. It was one of those big 747s and right away there was some problem with the seats. George is raising hell with the woman ticket agent at the gate. We finally get on the plane and in the confusion, the wives wound up sitting together in one row of the first-class section with George and I behind them. I don't remember exactly what happened, other than the fact that George got involved in some conversation away from his seat and by the time he got back, the stewardess with the food cart had already left his dinner for him. It was prime rib — I do remember that — and by the time George got back, it was cold. Well, once again he starts ranting about his meal and I'm saying to myself, "What have I got myself into here?"
The next thing I know, he's sitting there next to me writing a letter to the president of American Airlines, detailing all these problems he's had with this flight to Hawaii.
But because he'd always been good to me — even our arguments were always good-natured — I suppose I blinded myself to the inevitability that this great run of Yankee championships we'd had since Joe took over as manager in 1996 would end badly. At least for some of us.
With Steinbrenner, there can never be happy endings because the man simply won't allow himself to be happy. Four world championships, six American League pennants, and eight straight trips to the post-season in eight years simply weren't good enough for him. The reason, I suppose, is because when we were winning those three straight world championships from 1998 to 2000 — something I will assert right here will never be done again in this modern-day three-tiered postseason setup — Steinbrenner wasn't getting enough of the credit. Or at least he thought he wasn't getting enough of the credit, and, in his mind, Joe was getting too much of the credit. In any event, after we lost the 2001 World Series in Arizona, Steinbrenner finally had his opening. We had actually lost — with Mariano Rivera on the mound with a lead in the ninth inning, no less — and now Steinbrenner could start looking for people to blame.
I was told that immediately after the final out was recorded and the Diamondbacks were celebrating on their field, Steinbrenner was storming around the visiting clubhouse, making all sorts of threats about "big changes coming" as our players came in off the field. He also reportedly screamed at Phyllis Merhige, the woman from the American League office in charge of media relations, about television cameras being in the clubhouse before the game was over. I didn't see any of this — Joe, Derek Jeter, and I lingered awhile in the dugout and watched the Diamondbacks celebrate — but I'm told it was really awful. Anyway, looking back now, I think that was probably the beginning of the deterioration of relations between Steinbrenner and Joe's staff. It didn't matter that we'd had two of the most unbelievable sudden-death, extra-inning, comeback victories in baseball history in Games Four and Five at Yankee Stadium, or that this had been one of the most thrilling and memorable World Series ever. We didn't win and that was simply unacceptable.
As promised, Steinbrenner and his front office made a lot of changes for 2002, and while it was not entirely by design, there was no question in my mind the character and core of those championship Yankee teams began to change dramatically. Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius retired and Tino Martinez, another strong character guy, was allowed to leave as a free agent without even so much as a "thanks for the memories" phone call from anyone because the decision had been made to sign Oakland's Jason Giambi, the defending American League MVP, to play first base.
We were able to win the AL East for the fifth straight season in 2002 — by 101/2 games — but in the first round of the playoffs, the best-of-five division series, we ran smack into a hot-hitting Anaheim Angels team that was putting it all together at just the right time. See, this is what Steinbrenner has never been able to understand. He thinks that spending more money on players should assure him of winning. It never occurs to him that maybe the guys on the other side of the field want to win, too. And when you get into these sudden-death, short postseason series, it doesn't matter a hoot what your players are earning.
I can't begin to recite all the things that went right for us in winning those four world championships — things that just as easily could have gone wrong. In baseball, the postseason is a crapshoot, especially that best-of-five first round. Anything can happen and may the hot team win — as was the case with the Angels in 2002.
So after winning the first game at Yankee Stadium, the Angels swept the next three, pounding our pitchers for a combined 44 hits and 26 runs. Steinbrenner didn't bother traveling with the team to Anaheim, but from his compound back in Tampa we knew he was seething and looking to lay the blame for this on Joe and the coaches. In the meantime, people had been asking me since the end of the regular season if I was coming back and my answer was always: "I'd like to, but you've gotta be asked." When the same people would then say: "Well, Joe wants you back," I'd say: "Maybe so, but he still has to answer to the people above him."
I had been told — and in the case of Billy Martin in 1983 when I was the Yankees' third base coach I'd seen it firsthand — that when Steinbrenner wants to get at his manager he starts off by going at it through his coaches. I figured there was a pretty good chance he'd take this loss to the Angels out on Joe's coaches. As it was, the season ended for us there in Anaheim, and we all went home not knowing if we had jobs for the following year. With most organizations I've been with, the coaches are always told whether they're coming back or not the last week of the season, or even sooner. At the very least, they're told to feel free to pursue other opportunities. We were told nothing in 2002, even though Joe was under contract for two more years.
Finally, about a week after the World Series, I got a call from Brian Cashman, the Yankee general manager, who pretty much confirmed my thinking of what Steinbrenner thought of us all.
"If you want to come back, you can," Cashman said. "But there are no raises for the coaches this year."
How's that for a backhanded way of being rehired! Not "We want you back" but rather "You can come back if you want." I sure did feel welcome to still be part of the New York Yankees. I told Cashman, "I'm not looking for no raise," and thanked him for the opportunity to remain on Joe's staff. Believe me, that's how it happened. I'm not smart enough to make this stuff up.
Of course, I'm sure Cashman was only putting it that way on orders from above. I can only imagine the abuse he had to take from Steinbrenner — and why a coach's bruised feelings might not exactly have been a high priority for him in his job as the boss's primary whipping boy. I came to realize that even more when I arrived at spring training and an embarrassed Cashman had to tell me my company car was being taken away from me. I'll get back to that in a minute.
Over the winter before the 2003 season, I spent much of my time, as always, at the Tampa Bay Downs racetrack, where I would periodically run into Steinbrenner. In the past, going back long before I worked for him, I'd see Steinbrenner at the track and he'd call me over to his table or he'd come over to my table where I sat with John "the Mailman" Colarusso. George and John had hit it off real good when they first met some years ago — George even took him to Saratoga one time. This one day that winter, I was sitting with John, and George was sitting at this little desk where Patti the hostess sat. He looked over at our table and said: "Hey, John, how are you doing?" He didn't say anything to me or acknowledge my presence. It was clear he was making a point of ignoring me.
A couple of days later, I was playing golf with Billy Connors, the Yankees' minor league pitching coach who is one of Steinbrenner's closest advisers in Tampa, and Gene "Stick" Michael, the chief Yankee scout. There had been some organization meetings earlier in the week, which Joe had attended, but not the coaches. Steinbrenner stopped inviting the coaches to these meetings after the first few years of Joe's term as manager. As we were playing golf, Billy suddenly said to me: "Boy, you won't believe how badly I got worked over from the boss yesterday."
"What happened?" I said.
"I'm not quite sure," Billy replied, "except that he's blaming me for leaking stuff to you that got into the New York Post."
"I'm not following you," I said.
"Well," Billy said, "at our meetings the other day we were discussing signing Contreras and somehow it got back to George King at the Post."
Now I was really confused. I had no idea what Billy was talking about. The only Contreras I knew was Nardi Contreras, who was related in some way to Lou Piniella and had been a pitching coach for a bunch of teams in the majors. It turned out Billy was talking about Jose Contreras, the Cuban pitcher who had escaped from Havana and was now a free agent. The Yankees wound up signing him for $32 million, outbidding the Red Sox a month later, but this whole thing about Steinbrenner thinking I had told George King — who happens to be a friend — about the Yankees' interest in him was nuts.
"I told him that," Billy insisted, "but someone told him you talk to George King a lot and he looked at me and said: 'That figures. You told Zimmer and he told King.'"
The fact was, not only did I not know anything about Jose Contreras, I hadn't talked to King since the season ended. I can't remember ever talking to King in the off-season. But coming as this did, shortly after Cashman's cold phone call and Steinbrenner making a point to ignore me at the track, it was becoming pretty clear I had somehow gone from the very short list of Steinbrenner friends to a considerably lengthy one of people he considers enemies.
I could only laugh. This guy is simply unbelievable. He talks about loyalty and friendship like they're what he's all about.
About ten years ago, before I was a Yankee, Steinbrenner came to me one winter and asked me if I would come to this breakfast he was having at the Bay Harbor, his hotel in Tampa, for his Gold Shield Foundation, which raised money for the families of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty. I started going every year for him and one year I was even the chief speaker. There was always this big, round table with nothing but Yankee people at it along with George and his family. Then about three years ago, I showed up at the breakfast and the only ones at the Yankee table were Bill Emslie, another of Steinbrenner's chief advisers in the minor league complex, and his wife. I said to him: "Where are all the Yankees? I've been doing this every year for George."
I was later told that Steinbrenner got his nose out of joint because the Tampa police had arrested Darryl Strawberry, whom he was trying to save from a life of drugs. I don't know how true that was, but it was apparent George no longer had anything to do with this breakfast. I just wish somebody had bothered to tell me. I was showing up every year and giving my time out of my friendship with him. I have to admit to being baffled at the way Steinbrenner operates, as well as at his strange sense of loyalty.
I happen to like both Doc Gooden and Strawberry, who, despite their very public problems with drugs, were given new leases on life by Steinbrenner with six-figure jobs as instructors in the minor league complex in Tampa. His generosity and compassion toward them has been overwhelming and yet, I think even both of them would have to agree, they've done nothing but embarrass him with their repeated brushes with the law. On the other hand, the people working in New York — from Cashman to Joe and the coaches, the trainers, and all the front office people who have served the Yankees with honor and diligence — get no thanks and only angry abuse from him while working under the constant threat of being fired at his whim.
One of the highlights of every winter in Tampa is the annual Gasparilla Parade. In 2003 the parade organizers chose as the grand marshal Steinbrenner's son-in-law Steve Swindal, who is also one of the general partners of the Yankees. I got a call from Billy Connors asking me if I would do Steve a favor by going on the Yankee float. I guess Steve wasn't aware that I was no longer in favor with his father-in-law. Like a dummy, I said yes and I wound up on the float with Gooden and our bullpen coach Rich Monteleone (who lives in Tampa). That was it. For whatever reason, no one else from the organization was there. Our principal duty was to toss out these foam baseballs to the crowds lined up along Bayshore Boulevard. There was a stiff wind blowing that day and I'm throwing these balls into it. The next day I couldn't raise my arm and it hasn't been the same since. Chalk it up as another battle scar of my last year with the Yankees.
I arrived in spring training one day early because we had to get our physicals at a doctor's office rather than the ballpark where we'd always gotten them before. We had a noon meeting at Legends Field, but we were done with our physicals early and decided to go to our favorite breakfast place, Mom's, on Dale Mabry Highway about a half mile north of the ballpark. It was just Monteleone, Lee Mazzilli, Mel Stottlemyre, and me. As we were having breakfast, Monteleone happened to mention that his wife had to drive him to the park because the Yankees weren't giving him a car for spring training anymore.
"Don't worry," I said. "I've got a car waiting for me in the parking lot at the ballpark. If somehow you don't get a car, you can have mine."
We got to the park about eleven o'clock and Cashman greeted us.
"There's something I need to talk to you about," he said to me. "George came over this morning and looked through all the rental cars and he pulled your car."
I think Cash thought I was gonna get hot and maybe quit right there.
"You want to put that by me again?" I said.
"He's pulled your car," Cashman repeated.
"That's good," I said and walked away.
Later, I saw Monteleone in the coaches' room and said: "About that car, Monty. I don't have one."
Well, it didn't take long for my car situation to spread all over spring training. A couple of days later, I got a call from my pal, Jimmy Leyland, the former Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins manager who was now coaching in spring training for the St. Louis Cardinals over in Jupiter, on the east coast.
Excerpted from The Zen of Zim by Don Zimmer, Bill Madden. Copyright © 2004 Don Zimmer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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