Is there an award for getting the least out of the most? If so, then Don Zimmer would be a lock during his tenure with the Red Sox. I’ll bluntly state it that I was one of the many fans (and media) that quickly soured on Zimmer for his lack of leadership, questionable in-game decisions, and maintaining a reasonably presentable rotation. I will state until my last baseball breath that the 1977-78 Red Sox should have taken it all.
Zimmer had exclusive membership in that distinct baseball club know as “lifers.” As a hard-nosed player, Zimmer fought off injuries and mediocrity (career .235 hitter) to play 12 seasons with five different teams. When the playing part of Zimmer’s baseball life was concluded the second phase began with the usual pathway up the baseball food chain before becoming manager of the Padres (1972-73).
The Red Sox rightfully had jettisoned Darrell Johnson in mid-season 1976 and then turned over the Red Sox ship to Zimmer who had been canned by the Friars. Then it started and never relented for Zimmer who was viewed as “old school” to the “new school” players and the media. A possible merger of two crime families – The Buffalo Heads and the media with a common foe – Zimmer.
The leaks from the clubhouse over the next several seasons never abated as Zimmer appeared to have lost control of the clubhouse. A significant part of the team became media’s “unnamed sources” for leaking second-guessing to a willing and cooperative and compliant media. A palace revolt was taking place with several ringleaders ready to use the tar and feathers approach of the subtle use of the media to undermine Zimmer.
Bill Lee – the weed addicted lefty – placed a nickname of Zimmer that resonated with his teammates: “The Gerbil.” Zimmer was faced with a surly group of veterans that called themselves “The Buffalo Heads” comprised of vets such as Fergie Jenkins, Rick Wise, Dick Pole (great name), and Bernie Carbo with associate members of younger players such as Allen Ripley and Jim Willoughby.
The “Buffalo Heads” were experienced enough to possibly find a more productive way to relate to Zimmer, but the battle lines had been drawn and no resolution would resolve the schism. Other veterans that were either neutral or non-supportive by doing nothing were compliant in the internal friction between manager and players. That spoke volumes to just how Zimmer was viewed by the players.
The real issue that became paramount to the Zimmer years was “The Great Collapse” that happened in 1978. The Red Sox were 14.5 games ahead and cruising until it fell apart. The result was a one-game playoff and Bucky Dent. The fans never forgave and Zimmer felt the brunt of their frustration.
In 1979 and 1980, Zimmer remained in charge as a few of the discontents were dispatched elsewhere. The weaning of the roster did not improve Boston’s chances as the team slowly fell to 91 wins and the 83 wins with a pitching staff that had collapsed and veterans eyeing free agency or the potential to be shipped elsewhere. Zimmer was done, but only in Boston.
Zimmer went on to manage both the Rangers and the Cubs before moving down to coaching with the Yankees and the Rays. However, Zimmer did have one remaining memory of Boston for all of us and that was his infamous “bout” with Pedro Martinez in 2003 ACLS.