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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 24, 2010

MLB: Jose Lima’s time was filled with joy

By Sam Mellinger
McClatchy Newspapers

You probably heard the news about Jose Lima by now, and even before you wondered how an apparently healthy 37-year-old man could die from a heart attack, chances are you had this exact thought:

Lima Time!

That was his signature, of course, the self-applied nickname he used to make others smile and bury his own insecurities in a cloak of confidence he used to get the world's best hitters out. He took Lima Time everywhere he went. Used it in casual conversation. Dropped it in quotes for the newspaper. Had it stitched on his golf bag and embroidered on the seats of his car. Used it for the message on his cell phone.

Lima Time came to define a singing, dancing, cursing, exhilarating, frustrating, beaming joy of a journeyman pitcher who left an impression in every ballpark and room he ever laughed or pitched in.

Maybe Lima Time was an act, in the beginning. He came to the big leagues with the hopes and fears and dreams and confusion of a poor kid who grew up in a crowded house in the Dominican Republic with no indoor plumbing.

So maybe when it all started, this whole Lima Time thing was a distraction for everyone else and something like a superhero's mask for him. A big league pitching mound can be a lonely place for a poor kid just trying to make it, but for Lima Time? For Lima Time, it could be a celebration, a party, and the more people in on the fun the better.

"He took it to the extreme, but he felt his job out there was to entertain," says Guy Hanson, the Royals pitching coach with Lima in 2005. "It might have initially been an act. Later on, it was just part of being him. Part of being Jose."

They are missing Lima now in Houston and Los Angeles and New York and even Detroit. He made the All-Star team and won 21 games and gave up 48 homers in consecutive seasons in Houston, badmouthed the team in Detroit, led a brief resurgence in Kansas City, savored one last taste of glory in Los Angeles and fought the end of his career in New York.

At every stop, he sang and he danced, he succeeded and he failed—all of it with the volume turned to 12.

Baseball statistics will remember Lima as a mediocre pitcher, 89-102 with a 5.26 ERA over 13 seasons. Baseball history will remember Lima with much more fondness.

Here in Kansas City, as much as any of those other places, we saw Lima Time in its honest entirety. The Royals plucked him from an independent league in the middle of 2003, originally to tutor the younger pitchers and fill a bullpen spot, but that was that crazy summer when nothing made sense so Lima went 8-3 in 14 starts.

Coincidence or not, the Royals dropped from a first-place tie two days after Lima went on the disabled list on August 27 and lost 10 of their next 14 games. So much of Lima's success came by sheer confidence, and you have to wonder if when the Royals lost Lima they lost just a bit more than a pitcher.

He pitched for the Dodgers the next year and went 13-5 with a 4.07 ERA there before coming back to Kansas City and wobbling through one of the worst seasons for a starting pitcher in big league history. He was 5-16 and his 6.99 ERA remains the highest for a pitcher with at least 32 starts since 1901.

That last season in Kansas City was a miserable summer when the team lost a franchise-record 106 games, but the experience came a little smoother with Lima around. He organized Texas Hold 'Em games on the road, wanting to play for higher stakes but settling because he liked the interaction. He threatened a reporter's life one week, then made nice with a hug the next.

This is how it always went with Lima Time—nothing in moderation—and people all over every big league city he ever pitched mimicked the catchphrase and points-to-the-sky, sometimes in tribute, sometimes as a punchline, but always drawing smiles. That was always the point with Lima.

He cut a mambo album and played nightclubs and wedding receptions. He bribed a bar to open late so he could buy a friend a drink, and insisted on teaching a clubbie in LA how to golf.

He went to a kid fan's birthday party a week after throwing a no-hitter in the minor leagues, was one of the best ping-pong players you'd ever see, and once bought a white Hummer with spinners off a minor league teammate. He taught himself English and the only place he ever sat still was on airplanes, where he wrote the kind of music he thought would make people happy.

Lima Time never made everybody happy, of course. The act made him a hot dog, which made a lot of people around baseball annoyed, to the point that some general managers refused to offer contracts. But Lima Time came from a good place, with good intentions.

"Just a great dude," says Brian Bannister, who pitched in the minors with Lima. "He could get under your skin a bit as an opposing player, but as a teammate he was great."

Jose Lima would've turned 38 in September. He was at the Dodgers game on Friday and waved as he received a long and loud ovation after being introduced. He joined the Dodgers Alumni Association this month, was set to perform at an event later this season, and was preparing to open a youth academy in LA this summer.

He leaves behind a wife, five children, and a baseball world full of lives he touched. The Royals held a moment of silence for him before the first pitch on Sunday, and David Ortiz wore a cap with "RIP Lima" written on it.

Lima Time is over far too soon, leaving happy thoughts about his life and sickening questions about how it ended. His impact on friends and teammates far exceeded his middling successes as a pitcher, and if you can only have one, Lima Time chose wisely.

"Always in a good mood, loved to sing," Brad Ausmus, a former teammate, told reporters. "We had to listen to his demo tape all the time in the locker room. Now it's a fond memory. Back then, it was annoying."