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A soft evening breeze gently cools Blair Field in Long Beach, Calif., where Jose Lima goes to the mound surrounded by the trappings of charmingly low-rent baseball. Infielders taking their warmup ground balls between innings are careful not to hit the kids who are racing the mascot around the bases. There are a few hundred fans in the stands, the setting so intimate that from the press box you can hear a little girl ask her dad for ice cream money.
It is a lovely place to chase a miracle, which is why Lima, 36, is here. He has a feeling that tonight, his fifth start for the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden Baseball League, might lead to his return to the major leagues, where he spent 13 seasons before being released by the Mets in 2006. Of course, the wildly hopeful Lima has that feeling every time he pitches. "Somebody from the big leagues is watching," he says. "I know it. You see where the Angels just lost a couple of guys off their pitching staff? They might need some help. They might need a guy like me."
Root for Lima. He deserves it, if only because he is so relentlessly upbeat, embracing the small stage even as he yearns to return to the big one. "Everywhere I go it's Lima Time," he says. "Time to party, time to feel good. Doesn't matter if it's here or Dodger Stadium." He doesn't care that his clubhouse cubicle is marked by just a strip of athletic tape with the handwritten EL MAMBO LIMA or that he makes only about $2,000 a month. And he doesn't mind that phone calls to his friends and fellow Dominicans in the majors, like David Ortiz of the Red Sox and Jose Reyes of the Mets, go mostly unanswered these days. "That's all right, they're busy," he says. "I'll see them when I get back to the big leagues." The bus rides on road trips aren't a comedown to him, but a chance to entertain, like the time he cracked up teammates with a salsa-flavored version of Sweet Home Alabama. "Sweet home Dominicana," he sang. "Where you can lie about your age...."
But the harsh truth is that major league clubs in need of reinforcements are likely to look elsewhere, lots of elsewheres, before they turn here. The teams of the GBL, Double A--caliber clubs with names like the Chico Outlaws and the San Diego Surf Dawgs, are unaffiliated with big league franchises, and nearly everyone in the league is there because they could no longer find work even in the minors. That's what happened to Lima, who was cut loose by New York after going 0--4 with a 9.87 ERA, then played in the Mexican and Korean leagues before joining the Armada this season. Once you have fallen this far out of the loop, it is almost impossible to climb back to the bigs.
That doesn't keep Lima from trying to beat the odds, along with a couple of other members of the Armada with significant major league résumés—pitcher Hideki Irabu and manager Garry Templeton. Baseball is uniquely seductive that way, the only team sport that offers the chance to hang on for so long around the margins. The kindest and the cruelest thing about the game is that it allows one to believe that it's never too late to make it, or make it back. "There's always somebody, somewhere, who's got a uniform for you if you want it," Templeton says.
It's surprising that Templeton, 53, the once-cocky shortstop famous for his refusal to go to the 1979 All-Star Game unless he was voted in as a starter (although he insists he never actually said, "If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'"), would be willing to manage at the independent league level in order to stay in the game. But sometimes with age comes humility, as well as a certain pragmatism. Templeton was a manager in the Angels' farm system until he was swept out in a purge by the new farm director in 2001. "That's the way baseball is, the way life is," he says. "I'd like another shot to manage or coach at that level, but I know there's no guarantee I'll get one."
If Lima is the optimist and Templeton the realist, Irabu is the soloist. He appears only on the days he pitches, afterward assessing his performance for a reporter or two between drags on a cigarette. "Hi and bye," says Lima. "That's about it with him." Irabu, 40, the one-time star in Japan's Pacific League who made his U.S. debut with the Yankees and last pitched in the majors for Texas in 2002, is also less willing to discuss his comeback dreams. "We'll see what happens," is the most he has been willing to offer.
On this June night Irabu is nowhere to be found. It's Lima Time, and he pitches against the Edmonton Capitals with his old panache, if not his old velocity. The first batter tests Lima by bunting between the mound and first base; Lima nimbly fields the ball, throws to first for the out and then stares at the batter for a few seconds for having the insolence to treat him like an old man. The rest of the outing is more of a mixed bag. Lima fools a few hitters with his guile, but Joey Gomes crushes a two-run homer on one of his mediocre fastballs. Allowing four runs on seven hits in seven innings at this level isn't going to get Lima's phone to ring.
And what happens if no one calls this season? "I'll be back again next year," Lima says. "Why would I stop now?" Darkness had fallen at Blair Field, but for Lima, it still felt like twilight.