One song, Los Pantalones (The Pants), is about trying to persuade a sexy woman who is wearing blue jeans to change into a pair of tight cutoff shorts. On another track, La Gozadera (The Party), which will be promoted as the single off the new disk, Lima sings at incredible speed, "Párate a batear que te voy a alimar." In other words: "Step up to the plate, I'm going to strike you out."
"This is my mambo, the band's mambo," Lima said last week while cranking the CD player loud enough to shake the still lifes on the walls of his Milwaukee hotel room.
In his younger days Lima thought his career would be the mambo and not the mound. The oldest of seven children, he grew up in a three-room house on a fertile plot of land outside the city of Santiago. His father, Francisco Rodriguez, was a catcher for 12 years on a touring Dominican amateur team and supported his wife, Nurys Lima, and his seven children by working for the local lottery system and running out roosters for cockfights. The Limas never lacked for food—they kept farm animals and cultivated mangoes and plantains—but Jose began supplementing his family's income at age 11 by singing in nightclubs. At 13 he entered a competition at a festival and sang before a gathering of thousands. He belted out a song from the Villa-Lobos operetta Magdalena, outperforming nine other vocalists to win.
His success prompted Jose to attend music classes. He became so intent on a singing career that he might never have played baseball beyond the sandlots. When he turned 15, however, Francisco asked him to give ball playing a serious effort, and Jose joined a team in the Dominican youth league. He pitched (going 9-0), played centerfield and was named his league's MVP. When he turned 16, after just one year of organized baseball, the Tigers signed him. "Ever since then," says Lima, "I have been a hot dog."
To be sure, there are some players who abhor his showmanship. "It's the weakest act in baseball," complains Brewers pitcher Steve Woodard. Adds Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Al Martin, "The crap he does gets to you. You want him to give it a rest."
Many other players, however, agree with Milwaukee second baseman Fernando Viña, who said before going 0 for 4 against Lima last week, "Why should it bother anyone? People should see that Jose is just being himself. He's a good man with a good heart."
Says Lima, "Baseball is a short career, and I'm going to enjoy every single day. Everybody should. If you don't like what I do, take me deep. You can dance around at every base if you want, I don't mind. I'm not going to stop being who I am."
Who Lima is, it turns out, is one of the most affable, least pretentious men in the majors. One night last week in Milwaukee, he sauntered around the field during batting practice with his glove atop his head and then paused before going out to play catch in the outfield to hug several opposing players, three members of the Brewers' grounds crew, two ushers and a dozen fans whom he has befriended over the years. Lima's autograph-signing sessions are the stuff of legend. "If you don't have [his autograph], you haven't tried to get it," says Dierker. After a tough 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs in his first start of this season, Lima was driving away from the Astrodome when he saw a throng of young fans. He parked, got out and spent an hour with a pen in his hand. During a rain delay in Detroit a few years ago, he stood on the field during the downpour signing for anyone hardy enough to come meet him. "He can't help being open and friendly," says Melissa, who met Jose while he was signing autographs after a game in Seattle in 1996. "He had to get his cell phone number changed because he was getting 100 messages a day. One hundred, no kidding."
If there has been a dark time in Lima's life, it came in 1997, shortly after he had been traded and had gone through a divorce. Lima, then still a two-pitch pitcher, couldn't get anyone out. He sometimes sat in the bullpen for a fortnight without being used. "His act was getting old," says Dierker. "He was a big personality in the clubhouse, but it was hard to be impressed, because he was pitching so lousy."
At the beginning of last season, the Astros had yet to settle on a starter for their fourth game. Lima, coming off a 1-6 season and a spring training in which he had put up an 8.16 ERA, went to Dierker and Ruhle and all but demanded the ball. "You could see how badly he wanted to start," says Ruhle. "He was so determined. Larry gave him the start."