Gielczyk: Frankfort’s Zimmerman Reflects on Hall of Fame Career
It finally hit Mike Zimmerman on Wednesday morning as he started putting the equipment away, and it dawned on him it would be for the last time … ever.
After 24 years as Frankfort’s baseball coach, the 54-year old Zimmerman stepped down at the end of this season. Zimmerman coached baseball at Frankfort for a total of 30 years, spending the first six as an assistant.
But it wasn’t a surprise to athletic director David Jackson and the school administration. Zimmerman had told everyone he was planning on hanging it up once his youngest son, Brett, had completed his senior year.
And that moment came last Saturday, when the Panthers suffered a 7-5 upset loss to Breckenridge in a MHSAA Division 4 regional semifinal game at Lockhart Field in Frankfort.
Zimmerman stayed true to his word and shortly after the two teams shook hands and cleared out their respective dug outs to make room for the other semifinal teams prior to the next game, he told his players it was over. He was indeed hanging it up.
“It’s been strange,” Zimmerman said. “Today is the first day it’s kind of hit me. The last couple of days I’ve just kind of been ‘blah.’ But, today I was up putting stuff away and getting stuff done on the field. It just occurred to me I wouldn’t be doing that any more.
“Next spring when they start, I’ll kind of be just walking up and down the ball (Zimmerman teaches at Frankfort) watching them. But, it’s time. It (30 years) is a good chunk of my life.
“I’ve been really lucky that my family’s really let me do it for 30 years, and put up with it all. All the late nights.”
Zimmerman said it was a blessing he was able to coach both of his sons for four years. The coach added that both were “lucky” enough to play on good teams, which made the experience even more enjoyable.
Although he professes he doesn’t keep track of the wins and losses, the numbers certainly testify to the Panthers’ success on Zimmerman’s watch.
The Panthers went 551-246 under Zimmerman, and captured their second straight Northwest Conference and district titles this spring.
Frankfort also registered its second straight undefeated run in the league, marking an achievement no other conference team can claim.
“I’ve been lucky,” says Zimmerman. “I’ve been in a community where they’ve allowed me to coach that old style. I don’t see that very many places any more. I’m getting a lot of calls right now from people wishing me well, and it’s kind of sad.
“All I really did was just coach. It shows the difference in our society. When I was playing, everybody had a 30-year coach. Now it’s so unusual because of all the outside factors that drive people out of it (coaching).”
Zimmerman said it just kind of happened, too. It wasn’t like he actually planned to coach this long.
In fact, after his second or third year as Klein’s assistant, Zimmerman decided he was done. He told Klein he wasn’t coming back the next spring. He was coaching girls basketball at the time, and confided that he almost took the varsity coaching position.
While he was debating whether to take the girls basketball job, Klein told Zimmerman he was leaving for Roscommon so Zimmerman would take over as the head coach of the baseball team.
That cemented his decision to stay with baseball. The rest is history. His peers recognized Zimmerman in 2013 when he was inducted into the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“Some people might shy away from it, because there’s an expectation there that teams are going to do things right,” Zimmerman said. “If they don’t have talent, people don’t expect them to win if they’re smaller and just not strong enough to win.
“But, they expect them to throw the ball to the right base and do things right. We’ve always told the kids that if the old timers stop coming to games it’s because you’re doing something wrong. They don’t expect you to win all the time, but they expect you to play well.
“Those expectations are what make it fun to coach here, because people do have expectations, and their kids expect to do well.”
Zimmerman admitted that coaching his sons did put a strain on their relationship at times.
“It’s easy when things are going well,” Zimmerman said. “The strain comes when they’re 0 for 4, and you’re trying correct something, and they’re mad and they don’t want to hear from dad.
“I can talk to another player and he goes home and gets a pat on the back. When my kids go home, they get me in a bad mood complaining about what they did wrong. So, they don’t get to go away from it. I think that made it harder for them.”
Frankfort has never had a junior varsity team, and while some might consider that a disadvantage, Zimmerman thinks it’s actually helped the Panthers because he’s been able to coach the players for four years.
He says the seniors have done a great job serving as mentors for the freshmen every year, and showing them the right way to do things.
“We’ve always told the kids that there’s only two coaches in the room, and only four eyes,” Zimmerman added. “The seniors will help you. If a senior tells you that you have to change this, change it. Because they know the right way to do it.
“So, we almost had a whole bunch of assistant coaches in our seniors, explaining things to the young guys. I think they carry on that tradition. Griffin Kelly this year was telling kids’ stuff that his dad had been told and passed on to him. That was kind of neat. I think it made the team closer. It carries on that family feel of our team.”
Zimmerman says he has few regrets about his coaching so long. His biggest, he says, is not getting to watch his eldest son, Zyle, pitch for Wayne State because he was coaching a summer league team. His wife, Tammie, did go to see Kyle play.
Tammie Zimmerman operated behind the scenes, and her work for the team went largely unnoticed because it’s not on game day. That’s when the coach is the most visible to the fans.
“People don’t realize that a coach’s wife does as much as the coach,” Mike Zimmerman said. “She’s probably been a bigger part of the program. I get all the credit, but she does all the work.
“She does the stuff that needs to get that nobody wants to do. The concession stand, getting stuff ready for the banquet and getting signs up. She spends about 10 hours putting them up. People see me pounding them in, and think I did it all.”
Zimmerman is looking forward to being able to travel with his wife and watch Brett play at Wayne State.
And being an ever present grandpa.
Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. Gielczyk can be reached at email@example.com for story ideas.