Lima Time ended too soon, but the show, as always, must go on
Jose Lima died early Sunday morning at 37 from an apparent heart attack
There was nobody quite like him as a pitcher, a showman and a personality
He said, "I never wanted to hurt anybody. I just wanted to make people feel good"
The image of Jose Lima that will stick with me forever comes from the Kansas City Royals clubhouse in the moments after he had pitched a beautiful baseball game. Lima had gone nine innings, allowed just five hits and one run to the Detroit Tigers. He had tipped his cap to the crowd as he exited the field. As he sat in front of his locker, he had this big grin on his face and this big cigar between his fingers -- a cigar that he had just pulled out of his humidor. It was the look of a man contented. Alexander wasn't this happy when he conquered the Persian Empire. Matthew Webb wasn't this triumphant when he swam across the English Channel.
To complete the image, though, there are three other things you should know.
1. Lima and the Royals had lost the game 1-0.
2. The loss was the 15th in a row for the Royals.
3. Lima was having perhaps the worst pitching season in baseball history.
Well, if you are the type, you may draw certain conclusions here. You may draw certain and logical conclusions about a man who would contentedly smoke a cigar and feel proud of himself with his team in the midst of a historic losing streak... but conclusions were never easy with Jose Lima. And conclusions were never the point. There was nobody quite like him.
After all, if you are the type to draw conclusions, you would think that Lima was talking to himself on the mound throughout his up-and-down and always staggering baseball career. After all: There he was on the field, muttering, shouting, stomping, threatening, laughing, singing. You could see him do it. And no one else was around him. He had to be talking to himself. But, he would say, No, he was not talking to himself. He explained that he was talking to a little Jose Lima, a miniature version of himself, a mini-me, who traveled with him everywhere. When Big Jose pitched badly, he yelled angry words at Little Jose Lima. And when Big Jose pitched well, he reminded Little Jose Lima that he was the greatest pitcher in the whole wide world.
"Does Little Jose ever talk back?" we asked him, because there were not many things in sports more fun than getting Jose Lima talking.
"Sometimes," Big Jose told us. "Sometimes he tells me that if I don't quiet down and pay attention, this next guy might hit a home run off me."
"And what do you say?"
"I say: I'll handle the pitching around here, man."
Draw conclusions about Jose Lima? You would be more likely to figure out the secrets of the wind. He did not want to become a baseball player, you know. He grew up poor in the Dominican Republic, the son of a hard-working baseball player... and unlike more or less every boy he knew, Lima did not dream of baseball. He wanted, instead, to become a star. He started singing in night clubs when he was 11. At 13, at a huge festival in the Dominican, he belted out a song from the Opera Magadalena, and won something like "Dominican Idol." No, he did not want baseball. He did not want to share applause with teammates. He wanted the stage to himself.
It was his father, Francisco Rodriguez, who pleaded with Jose to try baseball. "You have a gift for pitching," the father said to the son.
Lima's gift, unlike most young pitchers, was not a high-speed fastball or a dazzling slider but, instead, a change-up that took longer to reach the plate than hitters expected. Lima idolized his father. So he pitched. At 16 he signed with the Detroit Tigers. At 21 he made his first start in the big leagues against Kansas City. The sixth batter he faced, Gary Gaetti, mashed a long, three-run home run to left field. The seventh batter he faced, Dave Henderson, hit one even longer.
And it went that way for a while... Lima never did anything halfway. His first four seasons in the big leagues, he was 9-22 with a 5.92 ERA. He showed an early knack for giving up the home run -- when he threw a hanging change-up, the ball would dangle in the air long enough to pose for pictures.
Still, despite all available evidence, he seemed entirely convinced that he was the best pitcher in the whole wide world -- just like he told Mini Jose. He was a star. He was just waiting for the rest of the world to find out. And then, suddenly, instantly, the world did find out. That was 1998, when he went 16-8, walked just 32 batters in 233 innings and helped Houston win 102 games, still the most in team history. He was even better in 1999. Lima was chosen for the All-Star team, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, he won 21 games, he had a 187-44 strikeout to walk ratio... and he made hitters look silly, and he made batters despise him. He danced on the mound. He sang out loud. He celebrated himself. And he announced to hitters, "If you don't like it, hit the ball out. Then you can dance around the bases."
Well, he had not come to the major leagues to blend in. He called himself "Lima Time." Or maybe it was his act that he called "Lima Time." Or, perhaps, the whole era was "Lima Time."
Whatever, the keeper of Lima Time could not be ordinary.
"I'm not trying to make anybody else feel bad," he would say. "I'm only trying to make myself feel good."
Lima's pitching magic disappeared just as suddenly. In 2000 he had one of the worst seasons a starting pitcher has ever had. He allowed 145 runs -- most in the last 30 years.* He allowed 48 home runs, which is the most ever by a National League pitcher. He went 7-16 with a 6.68 ERA.
*Pedro Astacio also allowed 145 runs -- that was in 1998 -- but he pitched more innings and pitched half his games in Coors Field when that was one of the most extreme hitters parks in baseball history.
The most amazing part of that season: It was not Jose Lima's worst as a pitcher. That would come a few years later. But it was certainly Lima's hardest. He found out early in the season that his father was dying of throat cancer. He also figured out that many people were taking great joy at his baseball failings... they did not take his antics in the spirit of fun. They thought he was trying to show people up and embarrass them.
"I can tell you this with all my heart," he would tell me once. "I never wanted to hurt anybody in my whole life. I just wanted to make people feel good."
"Do you blame people for not liking you?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "They should see my heart."