Having been pre-occupied yesterday with Little League games, I was going through my e-mail late in the afternoon when I saw the subject line, “Dodgers’ statement on the passing of Jose Lima.”
Whoa. I immediately headed for the internet and learned of the shocking death, at age 37, of Lima, one of the most effervescent and entertaining pitchers I ever saw.
Judging by the reaction around baseball, Lima struck a strong chord. He certainly did with me, especially in the late 1990s, when for a two-year stretch in 1998-99, he was among the best pitchers in baseball. Certainly, he was among the most dynamic, known as much for his colorful antics on the mound and in the clubhouse as for his combined 37-18 record during those years. “Lima Time” became synonymous with music, fun and celebrating the joy of the game.
The good times didn’t last for Lima. The move from the Astrodome to Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park) was the beginning of the end of his pitching domination. When the Tigers released him in 2003, back when they were terrible, Lima said: “If I can’t pitch on this team–the worst or second-worst team in baseball–where am I going to pitch? If I can’t start on this ballclub, I must be the worst pitcher on Earth.”
He had a brief but memorable resurgence with the Dodgers in 2004, going 13-5 and pitching a shutout against the Cardinals in the NLCS. But Lima ended up in 2005 on a Royals’ team that suffered through a 19-game losing streak in August. When KC went through Seattle during that awful stretch, I went to their clubhouse to do a story on their struggles and ended up talking to Lima. Of course. It was like a magnet drew me to him — one of the few players in that understandably silent clubhouse willing to engage.
“Sometimes I wish I could understand baseball,” he said. “I’ve played a long time, but it’s still hard to understand. We cannot get a break. It’s been like this all year. I know you can say, `Oh, you guys have a young team,’ but I don’t believe in that. We’re grown-up men. Things are not going our way.”
Lima went 5-16 that year, 0-4 the next season with the Mets, and boom, his major-league career was over at age 33. He kicked around in Korea and the independent league circuit, but never could recapture the magic that made him an All-Star in 1999. According to reports, he was going to open a youth academy in Los Angeles and do community service work for the Dodgers. And now, far too soon, Jose Lima is gone. His joy, and his legacy, shall live on.
Just to get a flavor of what Lima was like in his prime, here’s a column I did in 1999 after observing “Lima Time” in person.
Jose Lima is going to be discovered any day now, so here’s a little advance tip: This guy is the best act in baseball right now.
Think Mark Fid-rych. Think Al Hrabosky. Think Joaquin Andujar. Throw in a throbbing meringue beat, the nastiest changeup this side of Greg Maddux, and some unique touches all his own (think lavender sports coat with matching purple pants) and you’ve got a genuine phenomenon waiting to happen.
Now whether Jose Lima is a good thing for baseball depends upon your perspective. The Houston Astros, the beneficiaries of his pitching prowess, absolutely love him, of course. Lima is 8-2 with a 3.03 earned-run average after Friday’s loss to Pittsburgh, which snapped his eight-start winning streak. In two seasons, he is 24-10.
In Randy Johnson’s absence, he has become the ace of what might very well be the best team in the National League. But that’s only half the Jose Lima story.
To get the rest, you need to walk into the Astros clubhouse before a game to watch him prepare. Last week in San Francisco, for instance, you would have glimpsed a man in the aforementioned lavender outfit high-stepping his way around the clubhouse, line-dance style, to the tune of a Randy Travis country song, punctuating his efforts with an occasional “Yee haw!”
Most pitchers disdain talking to anyone on the day they pitch, preferring to stare intently into their locker. You can’t shut Lima up. His usual M.O. is to blare the music of La Fuga, the Dominican
meringue group that he produces, and dance to their CD entitled, “El Mambo de Lima.” He does the same thing after his victories, which means a lot of boogieing in the Astros clubhouse.
“There’s one song he always sings along with,” Houston Manager Larry Dierker said. “I kind of like it. I think it gets the whole team jacked up.”
But Lima has a way of jacking the other team up, too. He makes faces, struts around the mound, shoots an imaginary gun at hitters after striking them out, and makes a wide semicircle to the dugout at the conclusion of innings.
Hitters don’t like that sort of thing. To Lima, it’s showmanship, but to others, it’s perceived as showing them up. “That crap he does gets to you,” Pittsburgh’s Al Martin said recently. Rarely a game goes by that an opponent doesn’t complain about Lima’s antics.
They just need to lighten up, according to Houston General Manager Gerry Hunsicker.
“His personality is refreshing,” Hunsicker said. “In baseball, unlike a lot of other sports, it’s not the thing to do to show your emotions. I think that’s so unnatural. To me, it’s like the fans sitting there showing no emotion when something dramatic happens. They do it in football, basketball and hockey when they score goals or do an exciting thing, but in baseball, you’re somehow not supposed to do that.
“With Jose, it’s genuine. It’s not a show. He’s an honest, sincere person who happens to be emotional.”
Or, as Lima says, putting his face two inches from yours and wagging his finger for emphasis, “I love the game, my man. Nothing will take that away from me.”
And yet Lima has a knack for inspiring controversy. Last year, he was accused of grooving pitches so that his friend, Sammy Sosa, could catch Mark McGwire. Sosa hit two homers off the fellow Dominican. This year, in his lone loss of the season to the Cubs, he held Sosa hitless.
In many ways, Lima is the pitching equivalent of Sosa, whose home-run styling raised the ire of some pitchers. Lima styles, all right, and it’s a kick to watch. The more national exposure he gets – and the All-Star Game beckons, not to mention the postseason – the more his act is going to be scrutinized. Here’s hoping he keeps dancing to the meringue.
Sosa wasn’t so bad for baseball, was he?
(Photo by Associated Press)