Lima Time ended too soon, but the show must go on (cont.)
Lima could not get his baseball powers back. He had some arm problems, like pitchers do. His change-up and fastball began to look an awful lot alike. He went back to Detroit and watched hitters crush his pitches again and then he was released, and it looked like he would never pitch in the big leagues again. He went to pitch some Independent League baseball because, as he said, you never know when a miracle might happen. He was still only 30.
And... a miracle happened. In 2003 the Kansas City Royals signed him. You would not expect the words "Kansas City Royals" and "miracle" to appear in the same paragraph, but, hey, that was an odd year in Kansas City. The Royals had gotten off to this crazy start -- they were 16-3 after 19 games -- and their young manager, Tony Pena, had players believing in the impossible (the players even wore these Pena-designed T-shirts that said Nosotros Creemos -- "We Believe"). This sort of illogical luck hovered around that team.
And then, absurdly, they signed Lima. It was absurd because they did not even scout him. They did not see him pitch even once. No, the Royals' grand old scout Art Stewart had heard through his inexhaustible grapevine that Lima was throwing a decent fastball for a club in Newark. The problem with Lima -- the Royals had decided -- was that he had lost his fastball, which made his change-up all but worthless. But if he had regained his fastball...
"What do we have to lose?" Stewart asked Royals general manager Allard Baird. The words "our dignity" hovered in the air.
But it was a desperate time -- the Royals had given back their hot start, they were about to fall out of the race, and their starting pitchers kept getting hurt. They didn't have time to go see Lima for themselves. They just signed him and planned to throw him in Triple-A as insurance. Only it didn't work out that way. The Royals' Sunday starter got hurt. So, without even making a single minor league start, Jose Lima returned to the big leagues. He threw six competitive innings, allowed four runs. And the Royals won.
Next time out, Lima pitched a little better -- 5 1/3 innings and two runs. And the Royals won. The next time out, he pitched seven innings. And the Royals won again.
It was insane. He beat Cleveland the next time out. He beat Detroit the time after that. He threw seven shutout innings and beat Texas. He beat Seattle with a gutsy effort. He threw five shutout innings and won in Detroit. He was 7-0 with a 2.17 ERA. And the Kansas City Royals were all alone in first place in late July.
Miracles. Lima was trying harder not to show up hitters. He seemed a bit more aware of how people viewed him. But, yes, it was still Lima Time, he was still Lima Time, and he could not help that. He danced and sang and said the craziest things. His teammates absolutely loved him and were entirely annoyed by him in equal measure. Reporters hovered around him because he was always good for something.
"I'm going to enjoy every minute," he said. "I know how quickly it can be taken away."
Yes, well, as if on cue, he pitched poorly the rest of the year. But he was able to sign on with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he won 13 games in 2004, and he threw a five-hit shutout against the Cardinals in the League Division Series -- that was the only game the Dodgers won. That game -- and the brief burst of inspiration he had brought to a stagnant franchise -- sparked the Royals to bring Lima back to Kansas City for an incentive-laden deal in '05. By then, though, the magic had been drained from the Royals and from Lima. The entire league hit an almost impossible to believe .314 against him. With two outs and runners in scoring position, the league hit .446.
It might be the worst season ever for a starting pitcher -- he went 5-16 with a 6.99 ERA. It is... well, you probably need to see a chart to appreciate the full gravity of the Lima career. Here are the five worst ERAs for pitchers who made more than 25 starts in a season:
1. Jose Lima (30 starts), 2005: 6.99
2. LaTroy Hawkins (33 starts), 1999: 6.66
3. Jose Lima (33 starts), 2000: 6.65
4. Darryl Kile (32 starts), 1999: 6.61
5. Eric Milton (34 starts), 2005: 6.47
At some point during that 2005 season -- like he had before -- Lima called himself the worst pitcher on earth. He had been the best and worst, all in the same career. Well, like Frank Sinatra, Lima had an over-acute capacity for winning... and losing. He finished out his baseball career with four losses for the New York Mets in 2006.
A friend of mine said that he saw Lima in the Dominican Republic once after that. It was in December, a non-baseball month, and he and Lima pulled into a parking lot at the same time. Lima stepped out of the car... and he had a complete Kansas City Royals uniform on. The complete uniform -- jersey, pants, socks, hat, the whole thing. My friend asked Lima where he was going... Lima said he nowhere special. He was just reliving good times. There's an old ballplayers line about how you don't give up the jersey until they tear it off your body. Lima, being Lima, wore his even longer.
Word passed around on Sunday that Jose Lima had died of a massive heart attack. He was not yet 38 years old. They had a moment of silence for him at the stadium in Kansas City, before the Royals-Rockies game, though I'm not sure that in this case that was quite right. It probably should have been a moment of music -- Lima never cared for silence. They could have struck up a mambo band -- maybe played one of his most popular lyrics as relayed by Sports Illustrated's Kostya Kennedy: "Parate a batear que te voy a alimar."
Step up to the plate. I'm going to strike you out.
And I thought about that image of Jose Lima, smoking his cigar, smiling happily, telling stories, all in the aftermath of his own loss and the Royals' 15th straight loss. Over time, most of the people around baseball came to understand that Jose Lima was just having fun. That's all. Baseball was fun. Life was fun. As he would say to friends and strangers and kids who wanted autographs: "What time is it?" The correct answer was "Lima Time."
Even if you lost, it was still Lima Time.
"Man, if I see a guy with his head down, I know I've got him," he told me that day in the clubhouse. "We can't put our heads down. We can hurt, man. But we've got to hurt on the inside."
In my memory, then, he took one more puff of his cigar and blew out the smoke and smiled. In show biz, they say, "The show must go on." In the clubhouse, Lima said: "That's what baseball is, man. You hurt on the inside. On the outside, we've got to win some games."