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Lima Time Has Passed

Sad news out of Los Angeles: Jose Lima died of a heart attack on Sunday morning at the age of 37. An erratic pitcher for parts of 13 major league seasons, Lima was almost always either awfully entertaining or entertainingly awful. He had just appeared at Dodger Stadium two nights earlier, as the Dodgers, the team for which he produced his most memorable moment, played the Tigers, the team that signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 1989.

The Dodgers’ official site has a fitting tribute, as does Dodger Thoughts’ Jon Weisman, while Sons of Steve Garvey has the transcript of Vin Scully’s remarks from Sunday’s game. Bronx Banter’s Emma Span unearths a 2006 New York Times article from Lima’s brief stint with the Mets which mentions that the pitcher owned more than 2,000 suits, and that he recorded a merengue album, “The Mambo of Lima.” Look what I found rummaging around YouTube armed with my pidgin Spanish:

Lima had just three and a half seasons in which he posted an ERA better than the park-adjusted league average. For most of the rest of his time in the majors, he was brutally bad, cursed with the inability to get enough movement on a fastball that was rarely fast enough to elude major league hitters. In 2000, after two years of strong performances for the Astr0s, he set an NL record by allowing 48 homers, and put up a 6.65 ERA. Given at least 50 innings to do his damage, he actually topped that astounding mark twice, in 2002 with Detroit (7.77) and in 2005 with the Royals (6.99). His career ERA of 5.26 is actually the highest among pitchers with at least 1500 innings in their careers.

But when he was good, he was very good, and as fun to watch as any pitcher in the game, flamboyantly huffing, puffing and otherwise gesticulating his way to success. In 1998 and 1999, after four years of getting knocked around both leagues at a 5.92 ERA clip, he emerged as an All-Star caliber pitcher for the Astros, winning 21 games in the latter year, making the NL All-Star team, and finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. In 2003, he was picked up off the independent Atlantic League scrap heap to made 14 starts  for the only winning Royals team since the 1994 strike. And in 2004, after spending most of the first two months of the season in the bullpen, he joined the injury-riddled Dodgers’ rotation and wound up as their number three starter. He capped his time in Dodger blue with a five-hit shutout of the Cardinals in the NL Division series to give the team its first postseason victory in 16 years. Here’s some of what I wrote after that game, whose conclusion I didn’t get to watch until several hours later:

In the first two games of the series, the devastating squad of Cardinal hit men had rolled up 16 runs on Dodger pitching and KO’d starers Odalis Perez and Jeff Weaver before they’d combined for eight innings pitched. With their season on the line, the Dodgers offered up loose nut Jose Lima, a man who encapsulates the one-man’s-trash-is-another-man’s-treasure aesthetic of this year’s team.

This is a junk-tossing pitcher picked up off of the scrap heap, a guy who can’t hit 90 on the gun, a guy who was pitching in the Atlantic League last season before resurrecting his career with the Kansas City Royals. Lima has posted an ERA below 5.00 in only three of his nine big-league seasons. His last big year was 1999, when he won 21 games for the Astros and made waves (and enemies) with his animated style and eccentric ways. When he couldn’t agree to terms with the Royals last winter, the Dodgers signed him to a minor-league deal. He was a reliever and spot starter until midseason, when the pitching-thin Dodgers were out of other alternatives. He went 13-5 with a 4.07 ERA for these Dodgers, including 9-1, 3.08 at Chavez Ravine. His crazy-like-a-fox demeanor won ballgames, and won over his teammates and Dodger fans as well.

…A phone call to my friend Nick later confirmed the game’s result but not its details, and so when I got home at 1:30 AM, I decided to check the TiVo to see the end. I picked it up in the bottom of the seventh. Lima was still his animated self, shaking his head and muttering after walking Edgar Renteria, then pumping his fist after retiring Reggie Sanders on a warning-track fly ball to Finley on the next pitch. The Dodger Stadium crowd was PUMPED in a way I had never seen before, waving the L.A. equivalent of the Homer Hanky in delight.

With one out in the top of the eighth, the telecast cut to Gagne warming up in the Dodger bullpen. The decision seemed automatic; at the beginning of the ninth or the first sign of trouble, the goggled closer, perhaps the best in the game, would take the ball. Lima retired pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson for the second out, and Fox showed a montage of the pitcher’s antics on the evening… They then cut to a graphic illustrating that with Anderson’s out, Lima had outdistanced the first two Dodger starters combined.

When Tony Womack escaped a full count by singling to center with two outs, I figured Jim Tracy would cue Gagne, but he let Lima press onward against the dangerous Walker. Ball one in the dirt brought pitching coach Jim Colborn out of the dugout, likely to issue the “get him or sit down” ultimatum. Lima huffed and puffed, pointed and gesticulated, then fired. Walker hit a sharp one-hopper right to Green in front of first base, and both Lima and the Dodger Stadium crowd went apeshit.

As the Dodgers batted in the eighth, the Foxies kept cutting to the Dodger dugout, searching for clues as to whether Lima was done for the night. Even Tim McCarver in his exalted omniscience didn’t know.

Even knowing the outcome of the game, I have to admit I got goosebumps when Lima emerged for the ninth to face the Cardinals’ trio of MVP candidates. A line from former Cardinal manager Johnny Keane about Bob Gibson after Game Seven of the 1964 series (for which McCarver was the catcher) came to mind: “I had a commitment to his heart.” Jim Tracy, a student of the game’s history, had to have that line in mind as well.

A fly ball to rightfielder Milton Bradley at the edge of the warning track retired Pujols. A drive to Finley in center took care of Scott Rolen, who remained hitless in the series. A popup to Beltre at third base disposed of Jim Edmonds and sealed the deal. In stark contrast to his previous gestures, Lima knelt near the mound for a serene moment, presumably thanking his local diety for allowing him to stymie the National League’s most fearsome offense on a five-hit shutout before resuming the festivities.

You would have thought the Dodgers had won the series by the fans’ fervor. They haven’t and they may not. But with the win, they’ve shed a 16-year burden of postseason futility and have now gone farther than any Dodger team since the Orel Hershiser-led 1988 World Champions. Their spot in the hearts of Dodger fans has been clinched, their accomplishments worth savoring for every last minute. Dodger Blues ought to reset that infernal clock which shows that it’s been 5837 days since the last great Dodger moment. Until tonight’s first pitch — Perez against Jeff Suppan — Lima Time is in full effect.

That 2004 Dodger team, the first one to make the playoffs since 1996 and the first one to win a playoff game since the 1988 World Champions, was a pivotal one for me, as it began healing the wounds induced by six years of poisoning by the Foxies. Upon their elimination 24 hours after Lima Time, I wrote:

After spending the better part of the News Corp era in self-induced exile from my Dodger roots and fretting endlessly over their various suitors, I was braced for the worst when Frank McCourt’s seemingly underfinanced bid turned out to be the winning one. Watching the Dodgers lose the Vladimir Guerrero sweepstakes and its nefarious underpinnings only fed my skepticism. Hearing that McCourt might sell naming rights to Dodger Stadium had me even angrier…

For years I had begun each Fox-era season with hope but not faith. From 3000 miles away, I would follow their offseason moves intently, slowly losing interest as the team stumbled out of the gate or wilted in the summer heat, only to make a day-late, dollar-short run at the Wild Card that would have me scrambling to keep up. The decision to hire [GM Paul] DePodesta — and retain Tracy — began to restore my faith.

Taking the reins from Dan Evans, a man who deserved better after restocking the farm system, DePodesta spent the year improvising masterfully in concert with Tracy, most notably with a bullpen almost completely rebuilt with rookies and castoffs after a flurry of deals at the trading deadline. The team upgraded its offense over last year thanks to the additions of Bradley, Werth, and Jose Hernandez. They watched Adrian Beltre finally live up to his star potential. They turned their defense into the league’s best (a .715 Defensive Efficiency Rating, tops in all of baseball) as Cora and Cesar Izturis emerged as the game’s top double-play combo. They overcame a shaky rotation that nearly dropped an axle down the stretch and a trade that more or less blew up in their face. And they kicked the Giants squarely in the groin on the season’s final weekend, capping a seven-run ninth with a Steve Finley grand slam that will live in the annals of Dodger lore forever. NL West champs, for the first time in nine years.

For all of that and so much more — Eric Gagne’s 84 consecutive saves, Alex Cora’s 18-pitch at-bat, Lima Time, night after night of pinch-grand slams, 53 come-from-behind victories including 26 in their final at-bat, their first postseason victory in 16 years as Lima shut down the league’s most feared offense and got L.A. fans to stay right to the end — the Dodgers showed their hearts every single day and won mine all over again. If I’m a bit misty-eyed, whatever tears I’ve shed over the end of their season have been tears of gratitude and joy. Thank you, Dodgers, for bringing me home.

Thank you, Jose Lima, for being part of that special moment, and for giving us so many entertaining memories even when you were down on your luck.

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