The Zen of Zim
Don Zimmer with Bill Madden
St. Martin’s Press, 2004

First of all, I think Don Zimmer and co-author Bill Madden would have served this book better by naming it something other than “The Zen of Zim”. In my opinion, potential readers may have shied away from it thinking it to be a self-help book. Maybe it was just another former professional sports coach doling out his thoughts on how to live a better life. This book could not be any further from a guide on life lessons; to be sure, Don Zimmer would probably tell Dr. Phil where he could shove a fungo bat in no uncertain terms!

In reality, this was one of the most enjoyable and easy reads I have come across in years. At just under 300 pages, I blazed through it over a three day weekend which is fast for me personally. It seemed as though Zimmer was sitting on my couch the way he sits on a bench in a dugout. All the while ranting and raving about the highs and lows of his more than half a century in professional baseball.

At times though I thought a better name for this venture could have been “Why I hate George Steinbrenner”. Zimmer however, is such a nice guy that even when he is telling you how much he dislikes someone, he invariably turns it around and says something positive about them.

An example would be in the first paragraph entitled “Just Treat Me Like A Human Being”. He recalls a 2002 phone call from Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman just after the World Series was over regarding his employment for the upcoming season. According to Zimmer, Cashman said “If you want to come back, you can, but there are no raises for the coaches this year.” Zimmer says “How’s that for a backhanded way of being rehired? I sure did feel welcome to still be a part of the New York Yankees.”

However, instead of leaving it at that with his feelings for Cashman on a negative note or for that matter, going even further on a pessimistic rant, he changes gears on you. In the opening line of the next paragraph, he says, “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”.

It’s as though he wants the reader to know how bad things got at times, but being the old school guy that he is, he doesn’t want to come across as a complainer; and to be sure, he doesn’t. Even George Steinbrenner, who is the cause of most of the madness, gets a compliment occasionally. Zimmer recalls the early years and how well they got along with each other as well as his respect for The Boss’s total commitment to the team he owns and loves.

One of the more endearing parts of the book though is the overall love, devotion, and gratitude that he holds for his wife Soot. Their marriage of over fifty years is yet another example of how Don Zimmer is a mountain of stability. Calling her just “a baseball wife”, would be an insult. That is why he devotes an entire chapter of over 25 pages to this wonderful woman. In this section he delivers a truly heartfelt tribute to her as the love of his life as well as the confidant he has relied on to keep him in line over the years.

“The Zen of Zim” is really a tempestuous walk down memory lane; sometimes from an old man looking back warmly and other times from an old school graduate bitching about today’s game. In describing the infamous brawl in the 2003 playoffs against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park, he recalls how it started. Clemens threw a pitch to Manny Ramirez that was “high and just a shade inside” as he puts it; which is a pretty accurate description. He goes on to say, “to see Manny’s reaction, you’d have thought Clemens drilled him between the eyes when in fact the pitch was almost a strike”; again, a pretty precise depiction of how it all unfolded.

The point though, isn’t about the brawl; which he apologizes for since it was the one where he unsuccessfully tried to attack Pedro Martinez. The point can be found a few pages later where he talks about how the inside pitch has lost it’s meaning over the years. He recalls a wonderful exchange between Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson during a game they were facing each other in April of 1973.

Seaver felt he had to bean Gibby because the Cardinals Ace had not only drilled Seaver’s teammate John Milner in a 1973 Spring Training game, but he also dropped Seaver the previous year because he was trying to lay down a bunt. As Seaver put it after Milner was nailed, “Right then and there I knew I was going to have to retaliate. I didn’t know when or where, I just knew that Gibby was going to get his.”

The revenge was served up on April 12th of that year; Seaver quickly took the count to 0-2 in Gibson’s first at bat. The third pitch though was very close to Gibby which went unnoticed. Seaver’s next offering was a fastball right at his chin which Gibson twirled like a top in an effort to get out of the way. “Your control is better than that Tommy” Gibson hollered out. “I know it is; I was just remembering the ball you threw under my helmet last year!” Again, if that isn’t “Old School”, I don’t know what is, but I do know that Don Zimmer is “Old School”.

I am giving this book a split rating, just bear with me as it will make sense in a moment. If you are a fan of any team other than the New York Yankees, this book gets “3 balls”. As a fan of baseball in general, this book is a great read. It is a wonderful look into the love Zimmer holds for everything from his wife to his career as a former player, coach, and manager. Additionally you get to read the sometimes hilarious complaints from one of baseball’s last “Old School” characters.

If you are in fact a Yankee fan, add an additional ½ ball to the rating. This is because there are some absolutely priceless recollections of their dominating seasons from 1996-2004. It truly is amazing that this team was as successful as they were during those years. There was an almost insurmountable mountain of inner controversy and front office dysfunction that would have imploded other teams if it weren’t for the coaching of Joe Torre as well as Zimmer. He lays it all out for you and to be honest, as a non-Yankee fan, it makes me respect the team more knowing now what they had to go through.

All in all, I give this book a 3 – 3.5 ball rating with four balls being the highest ranking. I fully recommend that you get it for yourself or as a gift for someone else. It is in paperback now so you will pay no more than $6.99 but I found it on sale at the local bookstore.

When it comes to “The Zen of Zim”, disregard the title because this is not a self help book! That is unless you are an employee of George Steinbrenner. Then maybe you could use it for more than just a good read!

Our Rating System is based on a four ball system as follows:
One Ball: Average. It has something to say but is nothing special.
Two Balls: Something men usually have - also means its a cut above average, and worth reading/owning.
Three balls: Stands out from its peers and is highly recommended.
Four Balls: More than just what two men have when hanging out together, it means it is an exceptional book that truly earns a walk - straight to the local book store to get a copy.