ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays and Mariners stood outside their respective dugouts at Tropicana Field, all of them wearing Don Zimmer's No. 23 Brooklyn Dodgers jersey. The video tribute was a walk through Zimmer's career, a reminder of the incredible journey he took during his 66 years of professional baseball. The ceremony was short, simple and touching to anyone who knew or even knew of the baseball legend who passed away Wednesday at the age of 83.
In a word, said Tom Zimmer, Don's son, the 20 minutes just after 4 p.m. ET on Saturday were "perfect."
"This has been something else," added Zimmer's wife, Soot. "I know he's up there looking down. He said, 'I started on the ball field, and we were married on the ball field.' And he ended up being celebrated ... on the ball field. I can't think of a better way to go."
Tom Zimmer said the flood of support and love the Zimmer family has received since the man everyone knows as "Zim" passed away has been "unbelievable." Saturday was no different, but it was perhaps even more special. It took place at a ballpark, because where else would it have been appropriate to celebrate the life of a man who spent his entire adult life around the game?
"He didn't have a church," Tom said, "so church was here."
Zimmer made it clear before he died that this was what he wanted. He didn't want a traditional service where thousands of friends walked by his coffin and offered their condolences. There is no other memorial service planned.
"It was pretty spectacular. Really tastefully done from the video to the setup on the field," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I know Zim would have appreciated it. ... I thought the tribute was fabulous. It can't be beaten. You just can't."
"You're married at the ballpark. Everything you do is at the ballpark," Tom said of his father. "He probably stayed alive longer because he got to come to this ballpark. So that's the bottom line."
Zimmer underwent kidney dialysis after sustaining a diabetic coma at his home in Seminole, Fla., in May 2012. He had surgery to repair a leaky heart vale on April 16 and needed a respirator to breathe afterward. He showed up for Opening Day with oxygen tubes. Tom said Saturday that he had been waiting for the call for about eight weeks.
It came Wednesday when Tom, a scout for the Giants, was working at a game in Pensacola, Fla. Zimmer had passed away at BayCare Alliant Hospital in Dunedin, Fla. That's when the outpouring of compassion began.
"I finished the game, like I was supposed to, drove all the way through the night to come back. But I had texts for eight hours," Tom said. "I let my wife drive almost the whole way because I had texts the whole night for eight hours. All I could do is say, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' It was all I could answer. People I didn't even know sometimes. ... Not just family. General managers. Presidents of clubs. Owners of clubs. It was unbelievable."
That was part of what made Zimmer special, Tom said. Everywhere he'd travel, people recognized him. He spanned entire generations, and everyone knew who he was.
Tom even relayed several stories about Zimmer's interactions with movie stars like Paul Newman and Kevin Costner without knowing who either one was. He talked about the time Danny DeVito told Zimmer he'd been a fan since his days in Brooklyn, and Zimmer thought he was a retired horse jockey.
"You'd just start laughing because it was like, he's just a simple person, but they treat him like a rock star," Tom said. "The players laughed at him all the time. They laughed at him because they knew that he didn't know who these guys were. Danny DeVito's hugging on him. My dad's like, 'How ya doing? How ya doing?' It's just a riot. I could write a book on all that stuff, I really could. I hope I can remember it."
Even the smaller details, like the patch on the Rays' jerseys, were appropriate. Zimmer's granddaughter, Whitney Goldstein, said the family loved the fact that the patches that read "ZIM" in blue letters, not black. Zimmer didn't want doom and gloom and a sad ending, she said. He wanted color, not darkness.
"It makes perfect sense. He wouldn't want it any other way," said his granddaugther, who threw out the first pitch before Saturday's game. "This is what his life revolved around. ... I think this was kind of the perfect place to kind of start and finish his life."
"It was a great life. No regrets," added Soot. "He loved every minute of it."