In the midst of a career unremarkable by the measure of its final back-of-the-bubble-gum card statistics (89 wins, 102 losses, a 5.26 ERA) Jose Lima was for two seasons one of the best pitchers in baseball. Over 1998 and 1999 he went 37-18, with a 3.64 ERA for Houston. He was an All-Star, a true stopper, and it was in the midst of that heady and happy run, in the late spring of '99 that I spent a couple of days with Lima and the Astros, on the road in Milwaukee. Before arriving I spoke to Lima by phone. "Come to the hotel," he said. "Go to the front desk and ask for the name 'Jim Carrey'. That's me."
That pseudonym, Ace Ventura fans, surely fit. For Lima, life was a lark
He never paused on the mound, never stood still. He was demonstrative and ebullient. His eyes would bulge. His laugh would crackle. He pumped his fists and swiveled his hips. As he came off the field at the end of an inning he would hold up his glove to his face and jabber excitedly into the leather palm, talking, as he said, to "my midget.
"When I'm not pitching well, I'm saying, 'C'mon, you're stupid, what are you f-ing doing? Relax!'" Lima explained. "When I'm pitching good, I'm calmer. I just remind myself how good I am."
Where Jose Lima went, the party followed. He was a singer first, before baseball. By age 11 he was making money singing in nightclubs in the Dominican Republic. By 13 he was performing in competitions. By 26 he was in his hotel room in Milwaukee dancing on his bed and playing for me, loud enough to rattle the paintings on the walls, a homespun CD. On the disc, titled "El Mambo de Lima" he fronted a 13 piece band, unfurling tunes that when you heard them forced you to get up and start shakin' it. One frenetic number was called "La Gozadera", which translates to frolicking or making merry. Perfect.
Lima brought that spirit into an Astros clubhouse that was the presided over by Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, fine players, good leaders, but not exactly a pair contending to be the next Abbott and Costello. Lima put the life into that room, from the moment he walked into the door, boom-box slung over his shoulder. He'd strip shirtless and shimmy up against one teammate after another, and cackle and dance and do a crazy chicken-walk and the clubhouse mojo, especially on the days he pitched, was all Jose Lima. If some of the more sober Astros would gently roll their eyes when Lima's game-day act began, they did so with a smile. Lima went 21-10 in that 1999 season and helped the Astros to the playoffs.
Of course, the opposition could sometimes be less enamored, might chafe at Lima's showy style, and the way, after a strikeout, he might point like a gunslinger on the mound. Lima's aim though was never to taunt but to celebrate. "If you don't like what I do, take me deep," he said. "You can dance around at every base if you want, I don't mind."
Not everyone on that 1999 Astros team enjoyed the big leagues the way Lima did. One position player, from Latin America, missed home terribly. He was glum and biding his time. He would talk about making his major league money for a few years and then going back home to the life, and the woman, that he loved. But every day on the road this player rode to the ballpark with Jose Lima, the team's very own Jim Carrey, and on those rides, against Lima's onslaught of optimism and happiness and sheer unencumbered wackiness, the player's gloom and homesickness fell away. He would smile and laugh in spite of himself.
In the years that followed Lima was less successful on the field. Short periods of effectiveness were mingled with seasons of terrible ERAs -- 5.54 one year, 6.99 in another, 7.77 in a third. In his final big-league stint, with the Mets in 2006, his hair now bleached a special blonde, Lima went 0-4 with a 9.64 ERA in four starts. Yet if his act was toned down it was toned down only slightly. There was still a joy and wonder about him. The couple of times that I saw him at a ballpark after that summer of 1999, he bounded over and greeted me with a "Hey Pappy!" and a laugh. As if by virtue of that brief time together in Milwaukee we were old friends.
"Baseball is a short career," Jose Lima once said to me, "and I'm going to enjoy every single day. Everybody should. I'm not going to stop being who I am."