Thursday, June 5, 2014

My Day With Zim

It was August 26th, 2004 that I got to spend one of the most remarkable days of my life with a baseball legend. His name was Don Zimmer and he was truly a wonderful man.

On the afternoon of Thursday August 26th, 2004 the featured horse race at Saratoga Race Course was to be the Union Avenue Stakes. It was a small stakes race for fillies and mares who had been bred in New York State, not an important race in terms of status or purse money.
What gave that stakes race some flair was that the favorite in the race, a filly named Sugar Punch, was co-owned by the manager of the Yankees, Joe Torre.
Joe Torre and Don Zimmer shared a bond that went beyond baseball, they both loved horse racing. The Yankees were in Toronto that day so Torre could not attend the races at Saratoga to see his filly run. Because he could not attend the race he sent his former bench coach Don Zimmer to watch the filly run and hopefully lead her into the winners circle.
My friend Rick Dutrow Jr. was the trainer of Sugar Punch and he asked me to go the box seats where Zimmer was going to sit all day at the races and entertain him and talk horses with him. Rick was going to be busy saddling other horses that day and couldn't spend the whole day up in the box seats. I assured Rick it would be my great pleasure to spend the day with Zimmer.
I eagerly arrived to the box seats to meet this baseball legend who I found with his head buried in the Daily Racing Form and sitting with another baseball legend who I already knew, Mr. John Podres. John Podres lived right above Saratoga Springs in Glens Falls,NY and was well known to everyone in the area who had visited the racetrack, Mr. Podres loved the horses.
After saying hello to Mr. Podres I introduced myself to Zim, whose response was a quick hello followed by “Who do you like in this daily double?”.
The entire afternoon went just like that! Three guys talking horses and reading the Daily Racing Form. I stayed away from asking Yankee and baseball questions because it was obvious that Zim had no interest in anything other than his passion, the horse races.
When it was time for the stakes race with Mr. Torre's horse, Zim went down to the paddock where the horses are saddled and graciously shook hands and said hello to the many people who walked up to him. He arrived back at the box with the filly's trainer Rick. Rick was on a cell phone and with one minute to post he told the person on the other end of the cellphone while looking at me “Ok babe, I'm going to give you to Mike. He's going to call the race for you.” Slightly annoyed, I mouthed the words to Rick “who is it?” and Rick replied very casually “It's Torre”. My eyes must have looked as wide as pie pans.
Having been in the horse business, which is full of celebrities, I am not easily awed by anyone. This was different. This was the manager of the my favorite thing in the whole world, the New York Yankees. I took the phone from Rick and said nervously, “hello Mr. Torre, I'm Michael and will call the race for you.” He calmly said “Hi Mike, thanks”. The race went off and Sugar Punch was in perfect position the whole way and made her big move in the stretch, I called the race like a pro until the last 100 yards when I excitedly exclaimed “You're going to win Mr. Torre!! She's going to win”. Mr. Torre's response? He asked me who had ran second because he had bet an exacta! He hit it.
We went down to the winner's circle where Zim proudly lead Sugar Punch in by the reins. The NY Times had this to say about the race and Zim:

After the races we all went to dinner at a great Italian place. It was then that I got to ask Zim all of the questions I wanted to know about baseball, some of the Yankees and Yankees execs, and also about George Steinbrenner. Zim answered them all very candidly and had me laughing most of the evening. Zim and Mr. Podres had been teammates in MLB with the Brooklyn Dodgers, something I didn't realize until that evening. They recounted their days as teammates, laughing as they recalled how many times their manager Walt Alston would be furious with them for being late to practice because they stayed too long at the track! With Mr. Podres sheepishly looking at the table and roaring laughter, Zim told me his favorite story involving their time with the Dodgers. One day they were very late to practice and Alston asked to be informed when they arrived in the locker room. Shortly after they arrived, Alston came storming in to the locker room, tearing into them for being late again, certain they had come from the track. Mr. Podres began to explain to Alston that they had been caught in traffic and hadn't been to the track. Alston's face turned red with anger, and he snatched the racing program that Zim had forgotten to take out of his back pocket and held it up in front of them before storming out of the room.
I can't recount what Zim told me about some of the players and execs because it wouldn't be right to do, but I can assure you it was not only one of the greatest dinners I've ever had but also one of the best and most remarkable days of my life.
Zim signed a lovely note for my aunt and uncle before he left, who were big fans of his.
My life was enriched by spending just one day with this man, who truly lived a wonderful life.
He's been reunited with his friend Mr. Podres in Heaven now, and I'm sure they'll hit every trifecta on Belmont Stakes Day.

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Sorry for the Capatcha... Blame the Russians :)