Zimmer's lessons continue to inspire Maddon

New Cubs skipper plans to draw upon late mentor's advice during his first season in Chicago

Zimmer's lessons continue to inspire Maddon

MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs won only nine of 32 Spring Training games back in 1989. Season over, right? Somehow, Don Zimmer found a way -- and that year, the "Boys of Zimmer" captured the National League East with a 93-win season, led by their unconventional manager.

Joe Maddon got to know Zimmer when they were together with Tampa Bay. Zimmer was a consultant to the Rays from 2004-14 -- but to Maddon, he was much more than that.

And he is channeling Zim as he leads the Cubs into the 2015 season.

"Most of the time, he'd come and sit with me and bring me some Coney Island hot dogs that he knew I loved and critique the game the day before," Maddon said. "The great thing about it was, after being together for a couple years, we really got on the same page about everything.

"He liked the way I did things, his advice to me was spectacular. Zim wasn't young at that time, but guys in his position normally are there to give advice regarding evaluation of players. Zim was still able to give you strategy for the game and really was outstanding with all that."

Maddon leaned on Zimmer, who died last June at the age of 83.

"People have no idea what that means to a team or an organization and a young manager to have that kind of influence on a daily basis," Maddon said. "He was truly a unique man, a unique baseball man, and he's missed."

Zimmer, who loved to tell stories, would regale Maddon with tales of his days with the Cubs.

"He talked about his time with the Cubs, he talked about '89 when they went to the playoffs," Maddon said. "He loved it, absolutely loved it. He told me, coming out of [spring] camp, a lot of people were concerned or panicked or worried -- and they went on to have a wonderful season.

"The other thing, he lived not too far from the ballpark at Wrigley, and he loved where he lived there," Maddon said. "He was able to walk to the ballpark on a daily basis."

There are teams that have former players hanging around, and they might chat with a player at the batting cage or be asked their opinion about somebody.

"Zim was all of that -- plus strategically, he was on top of the game, man," Maddon said. "We'd come off a road trip that we'd done well and he'd talk about a couple, three games and things he liked that we'd done specifically. He'd come in and smile and be very complimentary and [have] a big giggle.

"And [it was] the same thing at home. If it was a tough game the night before that we'd win, I'd walk in the next day and he'd come in with the hot dogs and sit there in the chair and shake his head and say, 'I don't know how you do it, I don't know how you do it,'" Maddon said. "I think he saw a lot of him in me. He kind of took chances and did some unconventional things at that time that people frowned upon."

The Rays would run a safety squeeze, and Maddon said that was influenced by Zimmer -- who ran the drill in Spring Training.

"All these little nuggets he would throw out at me, I would listen to," Maddon said.

One of Zimmer's favorite hangouts in the Tampa area was the Derby Lane dog track, and Maddon now has a neon sign from there installed near his pool.

"Every time we have a party in the backyard, Zim's there," he said. "And there's a plaque on it commemorating Zim."

Zimmer and his wife Soot were at Maddon's house for his surprise 60th birthday party.

"I opened the door and my mom was there with a shot of Jameson's for me and Zim was sitting on the couch with Soot," Maddon said. "He was starting to get really ill. The dialysis was kicking his [behind]. The day he would get it done, he was really hurting. The next day, he'd be OK, and then he'd have to go through the process again. He fought, he really fought."

Cubs fans who remember the 1989 team may be reminded of Zimmer as they watch Maddon, who is definitely unique and will be creative in finding ways to win. You won't be able to miss the new Cubs skipper after a victory at home. He's getting a '72 Chevelle tricked out in Cubs blue, with a white interior and red inlays in the seats. The trunk will be carpeted in red and have a 1908 logo.

"It's just a Cub mobile," Maddon said. "I'm looking for top down, shifting gears, driving in Chicago, stereo blasting after a win. That's my ultimate moment right there."

Zim would love that.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.