Okay, with all the changes and news surrounding the Cubs this week, the news that Don Zimmer has past away in Florida at age 83, is by far the saddest.
When I was 12 years old in the fall of 1985, Don Zimmer was the third base coach for the Cubs. I had an opportunity to be the fill-in bat boy for the Cubs for a day while the regular bat boy was in school at St. Ben’s. I was told to arrive at 10am. Well, the game doesn’t start until 1:20, and there isn’t much for a fill-in bat boy to do for those hours leading up to the game. So I was sat on a stool and told to sit tight until it was time to dress in my pinstripes. I did. Time passed. Players came in. The stereo was turned on. Ryne Sandburg walked by me. I sat quietly afraid to get in the way, but anxious to put on my Cub uniform and run out on the field.
I must have looked bored because from across the room I saw an old bald man beckon me over with his finger. He sat sprawled in a folding chair, wearing his own Cub uniform, and waiting like a kid to go do something fun on the field rather than sit in the clubhouse. I stood in front of him and he asked me my name. I told him. He introduced himself, which was unnecessary because he was Don Zimmer, and I knew who he was.
“Do you know the signs, kid?” he asked me. “No,” I replied. With a brush of the bill of his cap and a sweep of his hand across his chest, he went on to show me the third base coach signs for steal, bunt, swing away, etc.
He was a pro. A major league coach. He was an important man one season out from barely missing the World Series. He was already a baseball legend. He didn’t have to give me the time of day. But he did. He saw a nervous, awed, and somewhat bored kid sitting for hours quietly in a folding chair surrounded by his baseball heroes and not getting in the way or bothering anyone and he engaged that boy. Made him feel for a moment that he was a part of the team. One of the guys. He taught me the secret signs that only the Cubs knew, and now I did too. For that day, I was a Cub. Not because I wore their uniform. Not because I ran out onto Wrigley Field from the Cubs dugout. Not because Rick Sutcliffe sent me to the second base umpire to retrieve the key to the batter’s box. But because Don Zimmer… Popeye… showed me the secret signs.
I don’t remember what the exact signs were. But I remember watching him teach them to me. More importantly, I remember how I felt when he showed them to me, not like I was in the way, but like I belonged. I will forever be grateful to him for that.
Rest In Peace Don Zimmer, and thank you for making this little boy a Cub.