Wilber Bonilla packed up his equipment in the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse Wednesday, knowing his work as team barber had come to an unexpected end for the night.
When news hit that baseball legend and club senior adviser Don Zimmer had passed away as the Rays hosted the Miami Marlins at Tropicana Field, the mood quickly turned somber, and it had nothing to do with the home team’s recent losing skid.
Bonilla, a Brooksville resident, realized he wouldn’t be cutting anyone else’s hair that day.
“We were all crying. You shed a tear. It was weird. You didn’t believe it,” Bonilla said. “Seeing those guys sad, it was like nobody cared if they won or lost the game.”
Since 2002, Bonilla, who runs Studio Uno in Spring Hill, sharing a space with Anytime Fitness at Mariner Crossing Shopping Center, has worked full-time with the Rays.
The wall nearest to his chair at his shop is decorated with pictures of various Rays personnel and entertainers who have performed at the Trop. One shows him working on Zimmer, sitting down while draped in a silver smock.
How exactly did Bonilla manage to do his job on the notably bald Popeye lookalike?
“He didn’t have much on the top, but his sides, he always liked them short,” Bonilla said. “And the top, just keep it bald.”
Zimmer, who spent 66 years as a player, manager and coach in professional baseball, joined the Rays in 2004. He knew Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Derek Jeter. He knew Bonilla, too.
“To walk into the clubhouse and have him call you by your first name? That was awesome,” Bonilla said.
Bonilla would listen in as Zimmer would hold court with the Rays players, particularly third baseman Evan Longoria, relaying some of his trademark stories detailing his decades in the game.
Having heard so many of Zimmer’s tales, Bonilla couldn’t even pinpoint just one that stood out, though he did recall one humorous interaction with the baseball lifer.
“When I was cutting his hair, he told me in 60-something years of baseball, it was the first time ever that he got his hair cut with his uniform on,” Bonilla said.
Though Bonilla’s work with the Rays doesn’t extend to the playing field, he still managed to benefit from Zimmer’s considerable wisdom.
When Bonilla would bring his three sons into the clubhouse, Zimmer would make a point to take them for ice cream, living up to his grandfatherly persona.
Zimmer also provided Bonilla with some valuable advice about how to handle his sons as they play on the youth and high school levels.
“He was telling me, ‘Let the kids play while they’re young.’ He was always encouraging the kids just to have fun, and me as a dad,” Bonilla said. “I’m always too competitive and always trying to work my kids.
“He definitely let me step back a little bit and let the kids have fun. He’d always say more positive than negative.”
It was the way Zimmer cared about kids and even younger players, along with his passion and respect for the game that Bonilla remembers now.
“Just having a chance to talk to him and see him and hug him and have him call you by your first name,” Bonilla said, “that’s one of my highlights being in baseball.”