Don Zimmer, a seat-of-the-pants baseball guy
Don Zimmer, who died Wednesday at the age of 83, spent 65 years in professional baseball. With his passing, baseball lost a legend who did not mind admitting that he was old school when it came to running a game from the dugout. He preferred to fly by the seat of his pants, which were unlikely to have a calculator in any of the pockets.
In an interview I did with him about 10 years ago after he left the Yankees and began working as a consultant for the Tampa Bay club, Zim told me, “I don’t think I could manage today if it meant relying so much on statistics. Managing is more than just studying stat sheets. I was told that in Boston they had all the managerial candidates play a simulated game on a computer. Can you see me doing that? I would have had to bring my grandkids along to show me how to work the darn thing.”
Zimmer managed four teams in 13 seasons but none officially since 1991, the year he was fired by the Cubs. As recently as 1999, however, Zimmer was an interim manager for the Yankees while Joe Torre was recovering from surgery for prostate cancer. He never had any ideas about going into the dugout for the Rays.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want the headaches managers have today, which includes having every move scrutinized,” Zim said. “`You see it on TV, hear it on the radio, read it in the newspapers. Somebody is using a mathematical equation to prove why the manager made a dumb move. That’s what I don’t like about all these statistics. Sure, they are a part of the game, and they can be helpful obviously in assessing a player’s ability, but you can’t manage games by numbers alone.
“With the Yankees, they would bring all these charts into Joe’s office, and we’d all go over them. You’d see so-and-so is 4-for-6 against so-and-so. Well, he might have gotten those four hits five years ago before [that pitcher] developed an effective new pitch. A manager has to trust his instincts and play hunches on occasion.
“One thing that gets me about all these experts with their statistics is that they are not out there on the mound with the manager when the pitcher is shaking like a leaf and the blood is draining from his face. Show me a statistic that can combat that.
“Managers need to learn what their players can and cannot do, and the good ones are the best judges of their personnel. Go by the numbers, and you’re taking the easy way out. That just gives a manager an alibi. The heck with that. You live with players day in and day out for six, seven months and you learn which ones can handle themselves under pressure. You’re not going to find that on a computer printout.”
That’s pretty old school, all right. The computer geeks may not abide with Zimmer’s view, but I cannot help thinking that the game lost a treasure of acquired knowledge with his passing.