Game Time: Jose Lima, 1972-2010
"I was born for this, I love baseball, and remember guys, it's still Lima Time, and it's always Lima Time. You gotta believe that." -- Jose Lima, 2009 as a member of the Long Beach Armada in the independent Golden Baseball League
Much like the man behind the movement, "Lima Time" is simultaneously simple and complex. I can't define it in one or two sentences, yet I promise by the time you're done reading this, you'll know exactly what it is.
I mean, how exactly do you explain a pitcher who went from a 20-game winner and All-Star one year to the worst ERA in the majors the next? How do you process the complete disregard for the unwritten rules about "showing the other guys up" with the hundreds of players who gushed about what a great teammate Jose Lima was? Above all else, in a sports world largely bereft of guys that openly recognize who pays for the tickets that pay their salaries, why did we lose a 37-year old guy on Sunday who, in the middle of a 1-8 start in 2000, went on television and thanked the fans for their support and told them "I know you pay my bills"?
A massive heart attack robbed the world of Jose Lima early Sunday morning. The magic of YouTube and the memories of fans across every city in which he ever played, thankfully, left "Lima Time" behind.
If I can't define what "Lima Time" is in simple terms, I can certainly tell you where it started. It started in Houston in 1998 on the morning show of then-610, now-1560 duo John Granato and Lance Zierlein. One morning early in the 1998 season, Jose Lima decided to show up at the studio and do some radio with John and Lance. The definition of "Astro fan favorite" would forever be changed.
When most athletes come into studio to do radio, they stay for an hour or so, answer questions, maybe take a few calls. (Truth be told, only some of them seem to truly enjoy doing it.) Jose Lima came on with John and Lance that morning and never left. He stayed all four hours of the show, and could have gone another four if they wanted him to.
We all wanted him to. "Lima Time" was born.
Lima Time is dead; long live Lima Time
At a time when athletes didn't have the numerous social media outlets they do today like Twitter and Facebook to interact with fans, and on a team that spent the better part of the Bagwell/Biggio Era spitting out generic soundbites about tipping caps and giving 110 percent, for fans Jose Lima was a voyeuristic baseball bonanza the likes of which we had never seen. Simply put, Jose Lima was groundbreaking.
He sat down in front of the microphone on that show, and he talked. And talked. And talked some more. He talked about the game the night before. He told stories about a heavy set woman he had a relationship with when he was in rookie ball in West Virginia. "Two fifty, plus tax" is how he described her. He talked about how much he hated the Yankees, complete with the "Y" pronounced like a "J" in that thick, distinguishable Dominican accent. He called Ricky Martin a "sweet boy" twelve years before we got the inevitable confirmation from Ricky himself.
And he talked about "Lima Time." And he told us to "believe it." And we did.
We believed it because he signed autographs, he talked to fans, he threw us souvenirs, he cheered for his teammates, he wore a rally cap, he entertained. "This is how it's supposed to be; this is what athletes are supposed to give back to us. Jose Lima gets it." We loved him because he loved us, and because he loved being Jose Lima, so much so that he went to play a beer league softball game with Lance one time (during the Astros regular season, no less) and wore his Astro spring training game jersey, complete with "LIMA 42" on the back.
Eventually, "Lima Time" went national. After months of convincing from Lance, Travis Rodgers, Jim Rome's producer at the time, finally agreed to book Jose Lima on the nationally syndicated Jim Rome Show. Baseball fans around the country got an appetizer-sized taste of the all-you-can-eat buffet of greatness that Lima had been serving up on John and Lance's show for the whole season.
Just like he had done with John and Lance, Lima owned Jim Rome's Jungle. He talked about how much he loved playing in Houston, about what a great team the Astros had in 1998, and he promised Rome that when (not if..when) he won his 20th game in 1999, he would send the host the game ball. Autographed. And he told Rome about "Lima Time" and told him to "believe it," and Rome did.
So now the corner of the world that was Jim Rome's Jungle all loved Jose Lima, too; "clones" everywhere believed in "Lima Time." But in Houston, we knew they were only getting the "Lima Time" trailer, we were getting the entire "Lima Time" feature film. It was like seeing a hometown band you grew up watching in dive bars suddenly blow up in Nashville or Los Angeles and make it big; the world showers them in adulation for all of their big hits, but deep down you know that you and your hometown buddies are the only ones that know the words to every B-side, underground song.
The full "Lima Time" box set was invented in Houston; the world got its ten or so greatest hits on Rome.
Jose Lima finished his Major League Baseball career with a fairly pedestrian record of 89-102 and a 5.26 earned run average. He had more seasons with ERA's over 6.00 (five) than he did seasons with ERA's under 5.00 (four). He made one All-Star team, his 21-win season in 1999.
You can say that "statistics don't measure Jose Lima's impact on the game of baseball" as a merely subjective (albeit correct) statement, or you can cite some form of statistical evidence to support that statement. Baseball-reference.com has a feature for each player in which they show the top ten pitchers or hitters to whom a player is most historically and statistically similar.
Under "Similar Pitchers" for Jose Lima, baseball-reference.com has determined that over the hundred-plus year history of the game, Lima is most statistically similar to, conveniently enough, current Astro Brian Moehler.
With all due respect to Moehler, a pro's pro and a serviceable arm in his time here in Houston, there is no such thing as "Moehler Time." If Brian Moehler were to pass away next week, we would all be saddened, but we wouldn't be scrambling to put together a memorial radio show that Monday for people to share their best Brian Moehler stories. People wouldn't be going to Google Image to find the perfect zany shot of Brian Moehler to use for their Twitter avatar because every other Astro fan decided to pay that same tribute. We wouldn't all be emailing each other begging for someone to find the lost video of the Brian Moehler Casa Ole
Stats tell us Jose Lima and Brian Moehler are virtual equals; Sunday afternoon told us "Lima Time" has no equal.
In some sense, Jose Lima's sudden, tragic death on Sunday was the ultimate test of "Lima Time." For many Astro fans, the news was as confusing as it was devastating. And yet what Sunday almost immediately turned into -- on Twitter, amongst e-mails, out at sports bars, in the Minute Maid press box -- was a deluge of old Jose Lima stories, each seemingly funnier than the last one.
Several of the stories were tweeted by current Astros Senior Director of Social Media Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter on Twitter, if you need her), who was the Assistant Director of Media Relations when Lima was with the team. She talked about 2000, the team's first season in then-Enron Field. The Crawford Boxes and their close proximity to home plate would eventually be Lima's undoing; he knew it as soon as he saw the park for the first time.
Well, as expected, the start of 2000 did not go well for Lima (22 home runs allowed in the first two months of the season), and in an effort to break a personal losing streak, Lima bleached his hair in San Francisco. Didn't work. He came home and lost his next game as well. His response to that loss? He decided to put on a concert in the center field restaurant, which at the time was Ruggles.
"Lima Time" indeed.
My favorite story Alyson told was about a trip to Chicago, a typical unforgiving cold and rainy morning at Wrigley Field. She and Lima were huddled in the dugout trying to stay warm during batting practice, a near impossibility. Merely seeking body heat, Lima scooted alongside Alyson and put his arms around her. She responded by pointing out that she was pretty certain that intertwined contact between player and media relations personnel was probably prohibited by the ball club. Lima's response -- "I don't care. I'm [bleep]ing freezing."
The cue-ball club enjoying Lima Time
Lima's self-deprecating nature was captured in this tweet from Rivers McCown: "I was 12, waiting outside for autographs. Lima looks at my ball, sees Jeff Bagwell already signed it and says 'You actually..got Bagwell? What do you want me for?'" It's captured in this picture from Brian del Castillo where Lima asked the other three bald men in the picture to remove their hats so there could be a quartet of bare scalps.
"Lima Time. Believe it."
For every story of harmless Lima shenanigans (like the one where he actually carded some fans in the outfield bleachers when they looked too young to drink) there was a story of Lima making some kid's year by signing the cast on his broken arm. That's one thing Lima loved to do -- he loved to sign autographs, to the point where his demise as an Astro in 2000 could have been every bit as attributable to writer's cramp as it was the short leftfield porch. He would sign for literally hours at a time, and loved it. Rumor had it that many of his teammates were not crazy about Lima's willingness to be so fan friendly, fearing that "Lima being Lima" would make them all look bad. Fact is, it didn't really matter. There was only one Lima, we all knew this.
"Lima Time" rolled on undaunted.
The only thing more puzzling than Jose Lima's death might have been his career arc. For a guy who threw virtually the same stuff for most of his career and who never had a really devastating injury, the peaks and valleys of Lima's performance are fascinating. It's almost as if the baseball gods decided that in 1998 and 1999 they'd let Lima's stuff excel to the point where he was able to get the lifetime financial security of a three year, $21 million contract from Astros owner Drayton McLane, and thereby making his toiling in Newark, Mexico, Korea, and Long Beach over the next decade to try and make it back to the big leagues less about the stress of having to get back to that major league paycheck and more about spreading the gospel of "Lima Time" with the added goal of a return to Major League Baseball duly and secondarily noted.
After his 21-win season in 1999, the baseball gods would send Lima to exile (eventually Newark, same thing really) for three years before giving him one more run at big league prominence. The Kansas City Royals signed him during the season in 2003, and his 7-0 start was a big reason why the Royals remained relevant that summer. He finished 8-3 that year and was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004. He rewarded the Dodgers' faith in him by going 13-5 that season, culminating with a five-hit shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS, a performance that had Dodger fans chanting his name as he came off the mound. It was the Dodgers first playoff win since the World Series clincher in 1988.
For Jose Lima the Pitcher, this would be his final moment in the sun. However, fortunately not even a 5-20 record in his remaining big league years could derail "Lima Time." Because it's always "Lima Time." In this, we believe. Whether it was in the Mexican League in 2007, the Korean League in 2008, or playing for the Long Beach Armada in the independent Golden Baseball League in 2009, it was still "Lima Time." Right until the very end, when he got a rousing ovation just a few nights ago when he appeared at Dodger Stadium.
So many times, people forget where they came from. It's not an athlete thing, it's a human thing. Anybody who has achieved anything in life has a slew of people to thank along the way, and even worse than forgetting to thank them, we forget they helped us to begin with. Jose Lima's meteoric rise as a Houston fan favorite was accelerated by his relationship with John Granato and Lance Zierlein; it's safe to say also that the rise of John and Lance to the gold standard for sports talk radio was aided in part by Lima's radio gold he brought to their show early on in 1998. It was the perfect partnership -- everyone won.
Lima remembered this. In a pregame interview in Edmonton (yes, Edmonton) in 2009, Lima was asked where "Lima Time" started. He mentioned John and Lance by name. Eleven years after coming in studio to talk about "two-fifty, plus tax" and his hatred of the Yankees, Lima mentioned John and Lance by name to a crew of independent-league reporters in another country. Watch the interview. You can see in five short minutes why ERA's over 7.00 were completely irrelevant when it came to believing in "Lima Time."
Jose Lima was a pitcher, but "Lima Time" was about a whole lot more than pitching.
On Twitter, each person's home page has a little section called "Trending Topics." If you're on Twitter, you know what it is -- it's essentially an ongoing, real-time scoreboard of words or phrases most often used in tweets within a given recent period of time. The feature is part shortcut, part relevancy barometer. In other words, if a topic is "trending" on Twitter it means lots of people are discussing it.
Within a couple hours of the news of Jose Lima's death early Sunday afternoon, the number two rated trending topic in Houston was "limatime." Appropriately enough, the only trending topic ahead of "limatime" on Sunday afternoon was "ilovelifebecause." Frankly, either worked if you were discussing Jose Lima. Jose Lima loved life.
"It's always Lima Time. You gotta believe that."
We still believe.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show", and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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