Houston Astros: Remembering Jose Lima, the human antidepressant

5 Mar 2000: Jose Lima #42 of the Houston Astros signs autographs before the Spring Training Game against the New York Yankees in Tampa Bay, Florida.
5 Mar 2000: Jose Lima #42 of the Houston Astros signs autographs before the Spring Training Game against the New York Yankees in Tampa Bay, Florida. /

Lima Time was 25 hours a day eight days a week. The former pitcher’s death at 37 almost a decade ago still wrenches.

Of anyone who’s ever played professional baseball, very few, in any era, have looked as though they really did play for the love of the game. We learn only when they’re unable to play any longer that they really did love the game for its own sake, no matter the money, no matter the controversies.

Some love it too much to keep themselves steady. Some can’t bear to let the world see anything other than the difficulty involved in playing the game, on and off the field, in the inferno of the public eye. Some get slapped down unconscionably, early enough on, that the joy gets driven to places they alone are allowed to visit, when nobody is watching, and the burdens are driven forward enough to wreak havoc more than hits and runs.

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And, then there are those who don’t let the smugger-than-thou contingencies — in the dugout, on the field, in the press box, in the constellations of baseball government — or their own furies compromise their love of the game. One way or another, they succeed in melting away the iciest blasts fired toward them and leave one and all laughing no matter how well they are or aren’t doing on the field.

It’s bad enough that we don’t appreciate them while they’re playing the game. It’s worse when they leave the game and only then do you notice something special went away when they did. When they die not long after that, you can’t really explain that wrench.

A few years ago, Bryce Harper dropped some jaws when he designed and sported a cap taking a cue from Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps and saying, “Make Baseball Fun Again.” When Harper spoke about the fun of the game (as he still does when moved to do so), he could have said one of the players who might have inspired him that way was a pitcher named Jose Lima.

Lima died almost ten years ago when a massive heart attack killed him at 37. He was someone about whom you really could say he was great for your team and the game itself even when he couldn’t find the strike zone with a compass and a guide dog.

Forget the birth certificate that said Dominican Republic. Lima was really on loan from his own planet. Almost six decades of baseball watching, observing, and reading haven’t shown me anyone who was Lima’s kind of ebullient even in the middle of his worst times on the mound.

It didn’t matter whether he was a 20-game winner and All-Star. (For the 1999 Houston Astros.) Or, whether he was one of the culprits behind a nineteen-game losing streak. (The 2005 Kansas City Royals; Lima was the losing pitcher for number nineteen.) Or, whether he helped pitch a team to the postseason. (The 2004 Los Angeles Dodgers, about which more shortly.) Or, whether he kept it real in the middle of one final major league humiliation. (0-4/9.87 ERA/6.09 FIP, for the 2006 New York Mets.)

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Jose Lima was a human antidepressant. During his Houston days he was said to have roomed with a fellow Latino who was so homesick he decided he’d play baseball just long enough to build a lifetime’s security for the wife and family he missed so desperately, and that was that. Then, he got Lima for a roommate. Goodbye homesickness; hasta la vista, misery.

There really was no crying in baseball when the clock struck Lima Time, which was about 25 hours a day, eight days a week. But it took the Show long enough to catch on that he wasn’t out to show anybody up. Baseball was Lima’s party, and he wanted everybody in on the fun. Even when he beat you on the mound. Even in the thick of a postseason trying his damnedest to get his team to their first postseason win since the 1988 World Series.

The only game the 2004 Dodgers won that postseason turned out to be Lima’s signature pitching performance. He may have been the only person in Dodger Stadium and among the broadcast audience who wasn’t surprised that he went back out to pitch the ninth inning, even with the St. Louis Cardinals’ intercontinental ballistic wing due to hit.

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“Every time we’ve needed the big win,” Dodger first baseman Shawn Green said after Lima finished his rip-roaring, five-hit, Game Three division series shutout, “he’s given it to us.”

Which was pretty good for a guy who made that club in the first place, and got tapped at first as one of the bullpen bulls, only because Paul Shuey ruptured a thumb tendon. Lima shook off a horrible beginning to spend at least a month surrendering no earned runs, pitching his way into the rotation, and helping turn Dodger Stadium into a party house. He made that year’s Boston Red Sox, the self-proclaimed Idiots, resemble a ward of clinical depressives.

Then he gave the Cardinals and every baseball fan on the planet something to remember him by in the ninth of that division series gem, after stadium audience and television broadcasters alike took bets on whether he’d be pulled for the pen in the sixth, seventh, or eighth innings.

He gave Albert Pujols a strike, something to turn into a foul pop into the stands past first base, a waste pitch away, and something to loft to right center, high and deep enough for Milton Bradley to reach in time for a catch.

He gave Scott Rolen two high sliders just outside, then a fastball right down the pipe for a called strike, then nothing better to hit than a meatball with Dodger center fielder Steve Finley‘s name on it.

And he gave Jim Edmonds a called strike on the top shelf and something worth a mere skyscraper popup to Hall of Famer-in-waiting Adrian Beltre at third.

Then Lima kicked into his usual post-game, post-win routine — hugging, high-fiving, fist-pumping, skip-dancing, cheek-smooching (teammates, pitching coach, trainer, manager, whoever was available), windmilling the crowd to ramp up the racket, then crowing into the microphone of field reporter (and former Show manager) Kevin Kennedy like a kid who’d just received the keys to his own chocolate factory and a prom date with the number one dream girl in town — into ludicrous speed.

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“It is line-up time, it is hug time, and it is definitely Lima Time,” Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said as Lima worked his teammates into his joy.

“The fans deserve this,” whooped the human ‘toon who’d just snuck sticks of dynamite into the Cardinals’ picnic baskets and slipped out of sight two seconds before they went kaboom. “I love everybody. I’m pitching with my heart because I know they deserve it.”

Not long before his death, Lima opened a southern California baseball academy and joined the Dodgers’ Alumni Association. Two days before he died, he basked in a wild ovation from the Dodger Stadium faithful, when he went there with his eleven-year-old son to watch a game.

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Almost a full decade later, it’s hard to forget what Dan Evans, the Dodger general manager who took the flyer on Lima for 2004, came right out and said it after the shock of his death. The biggest part of Lima was the part that killed him too soon—his heart.

The foregoing essay is adapted in part from an essay written by the author in 2010, upon Jose Lima’s death.