Don Zimmer told stories.
He loved to tell stories and anybody with an appreciation for the history, personalities and lore of baseball loved to listen.
Zimmer, in fact, was the history, personality and lore of baseball personified. Some people have an infectious smile. Zimmer, who died Wednesday night at 83, had an infectious face telling an infectious story.
Were all his stories true? Who knew? After all, Zimmer had been around longer than most of us, so who could contradict him? And who cared anyway?
Listen closely and, beyond being entertained, you'd learn the nuances of the game – how to play it, how to appreciate it, how to learn from it.
A BASEBALL LIFE: Don Zimmer dies at 83
After all, he first played professionally in 1949, last managed 50 years later. But there's one year he did both and that allowed me – just once – to tell Don Zimmer a story. But, in true Zimmer style, he stole the show.
Back in 1967, Zimmer was just back from finishing his playing career in Japan and was managing Cincinnati's Class AAA Buffalo team. Despite the likes of Johnny Bench and Hal McRae, the team struggled.
It only got worse. Racial unrest in Buffalo forced the team to move most of its games from War Memorial Stadium – the one where Robert Redford hit the climactic home run in "The Natural" – to the sub-standard A-ball stadium in nearby Niagara Falls.
Players at the time often had to leave their teams for a couple of weeks to serve National Guard duty. During one of those stretches, Zimmer, 36, activated himself to fill out the roster.
He even played a bit – and one night hit a home run.
My recollection decades later was that, as a high schooler, I saw a monster homer well up into a light tower in left field, as long a shot as anyone had seen there.
Sitting on the bench during batting practice one day before a Tampa Bay Rays game, I brought up the homer and asked if my memory was correct.
Zimmer's eyes bulged as if he was about to charge Pedro Martinez.
"Yes, yes, you were there?" he said. "Oh, come with me, young man."
He pulled me to a group of coaches and clubhouse guys waiting for batting practice to start.
"Tell these guys what you just told me," Zimmer blurted out with the fervor of some of his best arguments with umpires.
Apparently, Zimmer had been repeating the homer story for years but nobody believed him. Here was verification and vindication that this tale at least wasn't a tall one.
He later said the only other person who ever backed his story of unlikely power was Earl Weaver, who was managing Rochester against Zimmer that night. Zimmer claimed Weaver added a detail Zim didn't recall – that Jim Palmer was the opposing pitcher.
As it usually was when Zimmer was involved, his personality dominated.
Sometimes that personality mesmerized, sometimes it entertained. It always dominated.
After September call-up Dan Johnson's extra-inning home run became a pivotal and magical late-season moment in Tampa Bay's run to the 2008 World Series, it was Zimmer who stole the show in the Fenway Park clubhouse
"I don't know who the hell you are kid, but nice hitting," Zimmer said to Johnson.
Ah, but he did know – he knew plenty. That's why he spent all that time as Joe Torre's bench coach and confidant – even if wearing an army helmet or trying to take on the Red Sox singlehandedly diverted you from his real contributions. That's why the Rays kept him around well into his 80s.
Call him Popeye or The Gerbil, but know that he had four 90-win seasons among his 13 as a manager. And when he wasn't managing, he was a coach for the likes of Torre, Billy Martin and Gene Mauch. In fact, Zimmer was on the coaching staffs of 12 playoff teams, seven pennant winners and four World Series champions.
He had that much to offer.
Never in question was that a life-consuming love of baseball was at the root of everything Zimmer did. That's why he couldn't, wouldn't walk away,
GALLERY: Don Zimmer's life in baseball