June 11, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Tony Paul

MLB Insider: Competitiveness, horse racing bonded Jim Leyland and Don Zimmer

Rays senior baseball adviser Don Zimmer, left, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland talk at spring training in 2009. They were united by their love of baseball and horse racing. Zimmer died last week. (Robin Buckson/ / Detroit News)

For 10 years, they talked every day, sometimes even twice a day — often about Jim Leyland’s Tigers, often about Don Zimmer’s Rays, then about whatever else was on their mind.

Last Wednesday, the phone calls between longtime friends stopped. Zimmer, the colorful manager of the Cubs, Red Sox, Rangers and Padres, had passed away at the age of 83.

“When you saw him, you’d smile. When you saw that round face, you’d smile. He was a character-looking guy,” Leyland told me this week. “But there was really nothing funny about him.

“This guy was a serious baseball guy, a tough competitor.”

Leyland and Zimmer first met in 1969 but didn’t become friends in the early 1980s when Leyland joined Tony La Russa’s staff with the White Sox. Zimmer was managing the Rangers, and he seemed to respect the fact Leyland had put in all that time in the minor leagues. After all, Zimmer had paid his dues, too.

By the late 1980s, they were managing against each other — Leyland with the upstart Pirates, and Zimmer with a Cubs team he miraculously took to the playoffs in 1989.

One time, their teams scuffled during a day game. Tempers flared. And it put a damper on a planned postgame trip to the horse-racing track for Leyland and Zimmer.

“We got in the car, he wouldn’t talk to me, I wouldn’t talk to him,” Leyland said. “He didn’t talk to me for the first three races. Then he looked up at me and started laughing like hell. So did I.

“One thing we had in common, we both were a little bullheaded.”

Baseball was Zimmer’s first passion. He liked to brag that he never drew a paycheck outside the game. Then there was his family. Zimmer was married to Carol Jean, or “Soot,” for nearly 63 years, their wedding taking place at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., in 1951.

Then there was horse racing, the ponies.

That was another common bond between Leyland and Zimmer, whose memorial at Tropicana Field last Saturday coincidentally took place just hours before the Belmont Stakes.

“Oh, he loved it,” Leyland said of Zimmer’s obsession with horse racing. “I called him Don ‘Place’ Zimmer because his horse placed second all the time. If he had bet the ‘place’ all his life, he’d have been the richest man in the world.”

Then Leyland laughed, and laughed some more.

Zimmer was a rich man — not just in life, but in friendships. He was, in the truest sense of the word, a baseball lifer. He met Babe Ruth and coached Derek Jeter. Between his playing days, managing days and coaching days, he might’ve competed with or against more players than anyone else.

His physique, pudgy with the face of a baby, might have drawn him to the fans, or the fight with Pedro Martinez, or the Army helmet he once wore in the Yankees dugout. But make no mistake, in between the lines, he was much, much more than just the man they called “Popeye.”

“He was a lot more than a character,” Leyland said. “I just hope people remember what a great baseball guy was. A terrific baseball man.”

Time to Cash in

This week, Miguel Cabrera hit his 377th career home run.

That tied him on the all-time list with Norm Cash at 69th.

And hearing that name inspired me to get something off my chest — Cash’s No. 25 should’ve been retired long ago by the Tigers. As it stands, his legacy remains grossly underappreciated by the club.

We’re talking about a guy who, when he retired in 1974, was fourth all-time among American League left-handers in home runs — behind three guys named Ruth, Williams and Gehrig. He was a slick-fielding first baseman who may not have won Gold Gloves, but could make over-the-shoulder catches on pop-ups along the seats with the best of them.

For his 17-year career, he had a better slugging percentage than Al Kaline (.488-.480), and almost as good an on-base percentage (.376-.374).

While Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were going for the Babe’s record in 1961, Cash was winning the batting title (.361) and compiling a sick OPS (1.148). To put that in perspective, the best OPS Miguel Cabrera ever posted was 1.078, last year.

Cash, though, was widely ignored by Hall of Fame voters, and making the Hall of Fame essentially is the standard Tigers brass uses when retiring numbers. It’s why Alan Trammell’s No. 3 and Lou Whitaker’s No. 1, stunningly, remain in play.

And that’s really too bad. Cash died prematurely in 1986, at age 51, in a drowning accident. Otherwise Cash, who was quite the character, probably would be as visible in the Detroit baseball community as Kaline is today. As it stands, two generations of Tigers fans barely know anything about the man.

Tigers brass could’ve made steps long ago to assure that didn’t happen.

Missile command

Yoenis Cespedes doesn’t have a Gold Glove yet.

Odds are, that changes this year — thanks, perhaps, to a single play Tuesday night.

In a tie game against the Angels in the eighth inning, Cespedes, the A’s left fielder, picked up what seemed like a certain go-ahead single by Mike Trout — until Cespedes, just steps in front of the left-field wall, unleashed a throw for the ages. It traveled 300 feet in all, every bit of it on the fly, to gun down Howie Kendrick and preserve the score.

Twitter exploded with reaction to the play.

Even the Angels’ official Twitter account couldn’t hold back: “OK Cespedes. We get it. You have an arm.”

It was the eighth outfield assist for Cespedes this year; that’s tops in the major leagues.

“A guided missile,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia called it, during a postgame chat with reporters. “I mean, that was a special play. You just tip your cap on that one.”

Of course, it was easy for the Angles to tip that cap. They still won, in 14 innings.

No Hall of Fame jinx

Brave man, that Lonnie Chisenhall.

A day after the Indians’ scorching-hot third baseman went 5-for-5 with three homers and nine runs batted in, the Hall of Fame came calling for his bat — and he gave it up!

There have many instances over the year where players have gifted the bat, have gone on to slump, and actually asked for the bat back. Or, a player waits till the bat breaks, then sends it on its way. They’re a superstitious bunch, these baseball players.

Not Chisenhall. Feeling blessed to be a part of Cooperstown, he gave them the bat — and it hasn’t slowed him done one bit. He had two more hits Tuesday, and two more Wednesday, bumping his league-leading batting average up to .393.

That’s no small sample size either. Chisenhall, 25, has played in 53 of the Indians’ 66 games.

This is exactly the player the Indians thought they were getting when they used a first-round pick, 29th overall, in 2008 on the kid from the University of South Carolina.

Three up …

1. He started the season on the DL and was roughed up his first start, but the Nationals’ Doug Fister, the ex-Tiger, is rolling, with a 1.83 earned-run average his last six starts, including Tuesday’s win over the great Giants.

2. Give it up for four South Carolina roommates. All four were drafted in the first 11 rounds, including two — Grayson Greiner and Joey Pankake — to the Tigers, and St. Clair’s Joel Seddon to the A’s.

3. The Mariners, all of a sudden, are right back in the AL West race, having won eight of their last 10 to more than keep pace with the still-rolling A’s. Maybe Lloyd McClendon didn’t get the consolation job.

… Three down

1. Gutless move by Orioles youngster Manny Machado, intentionally flinging his bat on a swing against the A’s. He got a five-game suspension from MLB, and frankly, he got off easy.

2. Where did the Rays’ offense go? They haven’t scored a run in 28 innings. That’s led to three consecutive shutouts, and an AL-leading 10 times on the season. They now have MLB’s worst record.

3. As expected, the Phillies are too old and not talented enough. Expect them to finally be busy at the trade deadline, with Jimmy Rollins, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon all likely to be on the move.

Diamond digits

26.3 — Whiff-rate percentage on Tigers infielder Danny Worth’s knuckleball in his pitching debut against the Rangers last month, according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark.

14.7 — Whiff-rate percentage on R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball during his Cy Young season in 2012, per Stark.

6/12/83 — Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer and their numbers, 5 and 2 respectively, retired in a ceremony at Tiger Stadium. Only Al Kaline’s No. 6 had been retired to that point.

He said it

“We still believe it’s going to get better. We believe we have a very good team ahead of us this year.”

— Ben Cherington, Red Sox general manager, talking to ESPN on Tuesday night as defending world-champion Boston sat a whopping 10 games behind Toronto in the AL East.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

Tigers manager Jim Leyland, left, and Tampa Bay Rays special advisor Don ... (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)