Zimmer the star on this evening

Buy Photo Abigail Pheiffer/The Day Tom Dionne of Tolland is all smiles as his wife, Whitney, takes his picture with the Yankees' 2009 World Series trophy during Friday night's Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer Annual Celebrity Dinner & Memorabilia Auction at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Mohegan - Every day he's at the field, Evan Longoria makes it a point to seek out Don Zimmer.

"He doesn't sugar coat anything," said Longoria, the All-Star third baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays, entering his third season in the major leagues. "So if I was doing anything wrong he'd definitely tell me. I say 'Zim, give me something today. Give me a story.'

"He'll tell me about when he was with the Dodgers, his career. About (late Cubs broadcaster) Harry Caray, one of his memories."

Zimmer, currently a senior advisor for the Rays, is getting ready to start his 62nd year in professional baseball.

It's a career that has encompassed being married at home plate in a game in Elmira, N.Y., in 1951, managing the San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs and serving as New York Yankees manager Joe Torre's bench coach for the team's reign of four World Series titles.

Zimmer, 78, was the guest of honor Friday night at the Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer's Annual Celebrity Dinner and Memorabilia Auction, the 23rd such event. Zimmer has attended the dinner every year since 1996.

He was joined at a press conference prior to the dinner by recent Hall of Fame electee Andre Dawson, Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk, Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland and former Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Carl Erskine.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi was expected at the dinner, but did not attend the press conference.

"I have a great appreciation for people with a passion for the game," Leyland said of the gathering of personalities at the press conference. "And for people who could play it because I couldn't."

Leyland said he used to watch Dawson play and think, "There's something different about that guy."

Dawson, who finished his career with 438 home runs, is one of six players in major league history to finish with more than 300 home runs and 300 stolen bases. He won eight Gold Glove Awards as an outfielder and was National League Most Valuable Player for the Cubs in 1987, the first player ever to earn MVP for a last-place team.

Dawson will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on July 25.

"He was a Punch and Judy," said Zimmer, whom he managed with the Cubs, joking before turning serious. "… If you managed all guys like him, you'd be a hell of a manager."

Zimmer said Dawson would come to pregame infield with his knees taped, then go back to the clubhouse and have them retaped prior to the game. He said Longoria also works "too hard" at infield practice.

"I will talk to guys that work hard," Zimmer said of his relationship with Longoria. "He's special. He's special."

"It's a huge honor to sit with the guys on this dais," Longoria said. "I should be an afterthought. I've had two years in the big leagues going on three. (Zimmer's total of 62) is almost triple my age. That's pretty special. You can't put a value on something like that."

Zimmer said people ask every September whether he's going to retire. He said at his age you have to wait to be asked back.

"Just to think all these guys could come in this kind of weather," said Zimmer, who lives with his wife "Soot" in Seminole, Fla. "I was afraid I wasn't gonna get here. I was talking to Jimmy Leyland and he said 'My plane's not going to get out.' I didn't know he was here already."

The Connecticut Sports Foundation Against Cancer was initiated in 1987 by former major league catcher John Ellis, currently an Old Saybrook resident. Ellis is a cancer survivor, as well as having lost a brother, sister and sister-in-law to cancer all before the age of 40.

The foundation, which assists cancer patients and their families, as well as providing funds for cancer research, was expected to raise more than $800,000 with Friday's event.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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