By Steve Wilstein
The Associated Press
BOSTON - It was at once comic and ugly, Popeye vs. Pedro in a brawl that epitomized the heat of the game.
Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez throws New York Yankees coach Don Zimmer to the ground by the head. Afterward, Yankees players and coaches surround Zimmer and support his head.
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For more than half a century, Don Zimmer has been in the middle of almost everything in baseball. So no one should have been surprised to see him in the middle of things again Saturday when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox played hardball close to the head.
Yet even by the 72-year-old Zimmer's standards, this clash was a wonderment to watch.
There he was, the bald and bejowled Yankees coach racing around the mob of players on the field in the fourth inning and throwing a wild left hook at Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez. And there was Martinez, 41 years younger, grabbing Popeye by the ears and tossing him headfirst to the ground.
There was nothing funny initially about this little brawl as Zimmer lay on the ground with Yankees clustered around him, worried about his health. Zimmer, after all, once was so seriously beaned while in the minor leagues that he had surgery on his skull. The story about having a metal plate in his head is only half true.
"The fact is they filled those holes up with what they call tantalum buttons that act kind of like corks in a bottle," Zimmer wrote in his autobiography a couple of years ago. "I can therefore truthfully state that all of those players who played for me through the years and thought I sometimes managed like I had a hole in my head were wrong. I actually have four holes in my head!"
Zimmer had to have a hole in his head to go after Martinez. And Martinez had to have a few screws loose to throw Zimmer down instead of just stepping out of the way.
"I think Zim's a little old for that," Boston manager Grady Little said.
He wasn't the only one who thought that.
Both teams got caught up in the emotion of the moment after Boston's Manny Ramirez started shouting with bat in hand after a high, slightly inside fastball by New York's Roger Clemens.
Truth be told, the pitch wasn't close to hitting Ramirez and he had no business taking issue with Clemens. More likely, Ramirez simply was making a fuss to try to get Clemens thrown out after an earlier umpire's warning to both benches following a pitch by Martinez.
The whole nasty affair, which loomed large in a game that New York won 4-3 to take a 2-1 lead in the ALCS, started taking shape in the top of the fourth. It doesn't take much to ignite the fiercest rivalry in baseball, and all it took this time was a fastball by Martinez behind the head of Karim Garcia, nicking him on the shoulder.
"There's no question in my mind that Pedro hit him on purpose," Yankees' manager Joe Torre said. "I didn't care for that."
None of the Yankees did, especially the fiery Zimmer.
Zimmer is particularly close to Clemens, and when Ramirez went after the pitcher, Zimmer made a beeline toward Martinez. Call it crazy, call it cheap, but Zimmer's passion got the better of his judgment.
Zimmer didn't win that battle. He came away with only a cut on the bridge of his nose and could laugh about it later, though he was taken after the game to a hospital for examination of a sprained left hip. He rejoined the team later, satisfied that he had sent a message that even the oldest of the Yankees wasn't about to be intimidated.
"That's Zim. He's got more fire than half those guys in the dugout," Clemens said. "That's why I love him. He's one of the funnest guys around. But he's dead serious."
The Yankees weren't shocked to see Zimmer get so angry so quickly. His speed afoot, though, showed them something.
"I was more surprised to see Zim get across the field that fast," Jason Giambi said. "You don't spend as many years as he has in the game without getting involved."
Martinez and Ramirez had nothing to say about the melee, and neither did Zimmer - except to note with satisfaction that, "We won the game."
Zimmer, who eschews spinach for a chaw of tobacco in his cheek, has been like baseball's Forrest Gump, standing witness to great moments in the game in cities all over the country.
He has been a fixture in the Yankees' dugout since Torre was hired before the 1996 season, when New York began its run of four World Series championships in five years. In 1999, Zimmer's ear and left jaw were cut by Chuck Knoblauch's foul ball against Texas in the AL playoffs. The next day, Zimmer sat in the dugout wearing a military helmet with the Yankees' logo.
He had replacement surgery on his right knee before the 2000 season and considered retiring in the last few years, but he kept coming back.
Zimmer is as much a part of baseball history as anyone.
He gave way in the seventh game of the 1955 World Series to Sandy Amoros, whose game-saving catch secured the Brooklyn Dodgers' only championship. He was coaching third base for the Red Sox in the sixth game of the 1975 Series when Pete Rose said to him, before Carlton Fisk's home run, "Win or lose, Popeye, we're in the greatest game ever played."
He's been in uniform for every perfect game pitched in Yankee Stadium. He was the first player to wear a Mets uniform. He managed the San Diego Padres and the Texas Rangers and was at the helm for the Chicago Cubs for their first night game at Wrigley Field.
He was the one who first noticed George Brett's illegal bat in the pine-tar game. And he was the Red Sox's manager in 1978 when they lost a playoff to the Yankees, a game that featured Bucky Dent's famous home run.
He's been everywhere, done everything, with wit and intensity. Sure, he's got a few holes in his head, but he's closer to a sage on the bench than a clown. He just happens to be a very, very intense sage.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com
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