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Lima Time ended too soon, but the show, as always, must go on

The image of Jose Lima that will stick with me forever comes from the Kansas City Royals clubhouse in the moments after he had pitched a beautiful baseball game. Lima had gone nine innings, allowed just five hits and one run to the Detroit Tigers. He had tipped his cap to the crowd as he exited the field. As he sat in front of his locker, he had this big grin on his face and this big cigar between his fingers -- a cigar that he had just pulled out of his humidor. It was the look of a man contented. Alexander wasn't this happy when he conquered the Persian Empire. Matthew Webb wasn't this triumphant when he swam across the English Channel.

To complete the image, though, there are three other things you should know.

1. Lima and the Royals had lost the game 1-0.2. The loss was the 15th in a row for the Royals.3. Lima was having perhaps the worst pitching season in baseball history.

Well, if you are the type, you may draw certain conclusions here. You may draw certain and logical conclusions about a man who would contentedly smoke a cigar and feel proud of himself with his team in the midst of a historic losing streak... but conclusions were never easy with Jose Lima. And conclusions were never the point. There was nobody quite like him.

After all, if you are the type to draw conclusions, you would think that Lima was talking to himself on the mound throughout his up-and-down and always staggering baseball career. After all: There he was on the field, muttering, shouting, stomping, threatening, laughing, singing. You could see him do it. And no one else was around him. He had to be talking to himself. But, he would say, No, he was not talking to himself. He explained that he was talking to a little Jose Lima, a miniature version of himself, a mini-me, who traveled with him everywhere. When Big Jose pitched badly, he yelled angry words at Little Jose Lima. And when Big Jose pitched well, he reminded Little Jose Lima that he was the greatest pitcher in the whole wide world.

"Does Little Jose ever talk back?" we asked him, because there were not many things in sports more fun than getting Jose Lima talking.

"Sometimes," Big Jose told us. "Sometimes he tells me that if I don't quiet down and pay attention, this next guy might hit a home run off me."

"And what do you say?"

"I say: I'll handle the pitching around here, man."

Draw conclusions about Jose Lima? You would be more likely to figure out the secrets of the wind. He did not want to become a baseball player, you know. He grew up poor in the Dominican Republic, the son of a hard-working baseball player... and unlike more or less every boy he knew, Lima did not dream of baseball. He wanted, instead, to become a star. He started singing in night clubs when he was 11. At 13, at a huge festival in the Dominican, he belted out a song from the Opera Magadalena, and won something like "Dominican Idol." No, he did not want baseball. He did not want to share applause with teammates. He wanted the stage to himself.

It was his father, Francisco Rodriguez, who pleaded with Jose to try baseball. "You have a gift for pitching," the father said to the son.

Lima's gift, unlike most young pitchers, was not a high-speed fastball or a dazzling slider but, instead, a change-up that took longer to reach the plate than hitters expected. Lima idolized his father. So he pitched. At 16 he signed with the Detroit Tigers. At 21 he made his first start in the big leagues against Kansas City. The sixth batter he faced, Gary Gaetti, mashed a long, three-run home run to left field. The seventh batter he faced, Dave Henderson, hit one even longer.

And it went that way for a while... Lima never did anything halfway. His first four seasons in the big leagues, he was 9-22 with a 5.92 ERA. He showed an early knack for giving up the home run -- when he threw a hanging change-up, the ball would dangle in the air long enough to pose for pictures.

Still, despite all available evidence, he seemed entirely convinced that he was the best pitcher in the whole wide world -- just like he told Mini Jose. He was a star. He was just waiting for the rest of the world to find out. And then, suddenly, instantly, the world did find out. That was 1998, when he went 16-8, walked just 32 batters in 233 innings and helped Houston win 102 games, still the most in team history. He was even better in 1999. Lima was chosen for the All-Star team, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, he won 21 games, he had a 187-44 strikeout to walk ratio... and he made hitters look silly, and he made batters despise him. He danced on the mound. He sang out loud. He celebrated himself. And he announced to hitters, "If you don't like it, hit the ball out. Then you can dance around the bases."

Well, he had not come to the major leagues to blend in. He called himself "Lima Time." Or maybe it was his act that he called "Lima Time." Or, perhaps, the whole era was "Lima Time."

Whatever, the keeper of Lima Time could not be ordinary.

"I'm not trying to make anybody else feel bad," he would say. "I'm only trying to make myself feel good."

Lima's pitching magic disappeared just as suddenly. In 2000 he had one of the worst seasons a starting pitcher has ever had. He allowed 145 runs -- most in the last 30 years.* He allowed 48 home runs, which is the most ever by a National League pitcher. He went 7-16 with a 6.68 ERA.

*Pedro Astacio also allowed 145 runs -- that was in 1998 -- but he pitched more innings and pitched half his games in Coors Field when that was one of the most extreme hitters parks in baseball history.

The most amazing part of that season: It was not Jose Lima's worst as a pitcher. That would come a few years later. But it was certainly Lima's hardest. He found out early in the season that his father was dying of throat cancer. He also figured out that many people were taking great joy at his baseball failings... they did not take his antics in the spirit of fun. They thought he was trying to show people up and embarrass them.

"I can tell you this with all my heart," he would tell me once. "I never wanted to hurt anybody in my whole life. I just wanted to make people feel good."

"Do you blame people for not liking you?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "They should see my heart."

Lima could not get his baseball powers back. He had some arm problems, like pitchers do. His change-up and fastball began to look an awful lot alike. He went back to Detroit and watched hitters crush his pitches again and then he was released, and it looked like he would never pitch in the big leagues again. He went to pitch some Independent League baseball because, as he said, you never know when a miracle might happen. He was still only 30.

And... a miracle happened. In 2003 the Kansas City Royals signed him. You would not expect the words "Kansas City Royals" and "miracle" to appear in the same paragraph, but, hey, that was an odd year in Kansas City. The Royals had gotten off to this crazy start -- they were 16-3 after 19 games -- and their young manager, Tony Pena, had players believing in the impossible (the players even wore these Pena-designed T-shirts that said Nosotros Creemos -- "We Believe"). This sort of illogical luck hovered around that team.

And then, absurdly, they signed Lima. It was absurd because they did not even scout him. They did not see him pitch even once. No, the Royals' grand old scout Art Stewart had heard through his inexhaustible grapevine that Lima was throwing a decent fastball for a club in Newark. The problem with Lima -- the Royals had decided -- was that he had lost his fastball, which made his change-up all but worthless. But if he had regained his fastball...

"What do we have to lose?" Stewart asked Royals general manager Allard Baird. The words "our dignity" hovered in the air.

But it was a desperate time -- the Royals had given back their hot start, they were about to fall out of the race, and their starting pitchers kept getting hurt. They didn't have time to go see Lima for themselves. They just signed him and planned to throw him in Triple-A as insurance. Only it didn't work out that way. The Royals' Sunday starter got hurt. So, without even making a single minor league start, Jose Lima returned to the big leagues. He threw six competitive innings, allowed four runs. And the Royals won.

Next time out, Lima pitched a little better -- 5 1/3 innings and two runs. And the Royals won. The next time out, he pitched seven innings. And the Royals won again.

It was insane. He beat Cleveland the next time out. He beat Detroit the time after that. He threw seven shutout innings and beat Texas. He beat Seattle with a gutsy effort. He threw five shutout innings and won in Detroit. He was 7-0 with a 2.17 ERA. And the Kansas City Royals were all alone in first place in late July.

Miracles. Lima was trying harder not to show up hitters. He seemed a bit more aware of how people viewed him. But, yes, it was still Lima Time, he was still Lima Time, and he could not help that. He danced and sang and said the craziest things. His teammates absolutely loved him and were entirely annoyed by him in equal measure. Reporters hovered around him because he was always good for something.

"I'm going to enjoy every minute," he said. "I know how quickly it can be taken away."

Yes, well, as if on cue, he pitched poorly the rest of the year. But he was able to sign on with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he won 13 games in 2004, and he threw a five-hit shutout against the Cardinals in the League Division Series -- that was the only game the Dodgers won. That game -- and the brief burst of inspiration he had brought to a stagnant franchise -- sparked the Royals to bring Lima back to Kansas City for an incentive-laden deal in '05. By then, though, the magic had been drained from the Royals and from Lima. The entire league hit an almost impossible to believe .314 against him. With two outs and runners in scoring position, the league hit .446.

It might be the worst season ever for a starting pitcher -- he went 5-16 with a 6.99 ERA. It is... well, you probably need to see a chart to appreciate the full gravity of the Lima career. Here are the five worst ERAs for pitchers who made more than 25 starts in a season:

1. Jose Lima (30 starts), 2005: 6.992. LaTroy Hawkins (33 starts), 1999: 6.663. Jose Lima (33 starts), 2000: 6.654. Darryl Kile (32 starts), 1999: 6.61 5. Eric Milton (34 starts), 2005: 6.47

At some point during that 2005 season -- like he had before -- Lima called himself the worst pitcher on earth. He had been the best and worst, all in the same career. Well, like Frank Sinatra, Lima had an over-acute capacity for winning... and losing. He finished out his baseball career with four losses for the New York Mets in 2006.

A friend of mine said that he saw Lima in the Dominican Republic once after that. It was in December, a non-baseball month, and he and Lima pulled into a parking lot at the same time. Lima stepped out of the car... and he had a complete Kansas City Royals uniform on. The complete uniform -- jersey, pants, socks, hat, the whole thing. My friend asked Lima where he was going... Lima said he nowhere special. He was just reliving good times. There's an old ballplayers line about how you don't give up the jersey until they tear it off your body. Lima, being Lima, wore his even longer.

Word passed around on Sunday that Jose Lima had died of a massive heart attack. He was not yet 38 years old. They had a moment of silence for him at the stadium in Kansas City, before the Royals-Rockies game, though I'm not sure that in this case that was quite right. It probably should have been a moment of music -- Lima never cared for silence. They could have struck up a mambo band -- maybe played one of his most popular lyrics as relayed bySports Illustrated's Kostya Kennedy: "Parate a batear que te voy a alimar."

Step up to the plate. I'm going to strike you out.

And I thought about that image of Jose Lima, smoking his cigar, smiling happily, telling stories, all in the aftermath of his own loss and the Royals' 15th straight loss. Over time, most of the people around baseball came to understand that Jose Lima was just having fun. That's all. Baseball was fun. Life was fun. As he would say to friends and strangers and kids who wanted autographs: "What time is it?" The correct answer was "Lima Time."

Even if you lost, it was still Lima Time.

"Man, if I see a guy with his head down, I know I've got him," he told me that day in the clubhouse. "We can't put our heads down. We can hurt, man. But we've got to hurt on the inside."

In my memory, then, he took one more puff of his cigar and blew out the smoke and smiled. In show biz, they say, "The show must go on." In the clubhouse, Lima said: "That's what baseball is, man. You hurt on the inside. On the outside, we've got to win some games."

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