The Mambo King With a nasty assortment of pitches, a thriving music career and a mound manner that drives some batters batty, the Astros' animated Jose Lima is one hot act

June 14, 1999
June 14, 1999

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June 14, 1999

Inside Soccer

The Mambo King With a nasty assortment of pitches, a thriving music career and a mound manner that drives some batters batty, the Astros' animated Jose Lima is one hot act

There's a time to sing and a time to dance, and for Houston
Astros righthander Jose Lima, those times are just about always.
At three o'clock in the morning, as his infant son sleeps in an
adjoining room, Jose is wont to rouse his wife, Melissa, and
whirl her around to the sound of his own voice. At a street fair
in Houston one evening last spring, he climbed onto the
bandstand to croon and prance. Then there are the afternoons
before his night-game starts, a time when most starting pitchers
pace the clubhouse lost behind 10-mile stares. Lima prepares by
standing half-clad on equipment trunks, shimmying, performing
mock stripteases and singing robustly along with his favorite
merengue CD. It's no surprise that he knows all the words--he
wrote them. The CD is titled Jose Lima en Vivo (Jose Lima Live).

This is an article from the June 14, 1999 issue Original Layout

"I remember the naming ceremony for our new ballpark," says
Houston manager Larry Dierker, referring to Enron Field, which
is slated to open next season. "[Astros owner] Drayton McLane
was there along with a lot of other important people, and there
was a band. It was maybe 11 a.m., and all of a sudden there's
Lima with the microphone, singing La Bamba. People were
astounded. Astounded because he was so good, not because he went
up there--you only have to see him pitch to know he's a showman."

Oh, yes: Lima brings his mambo to the mound. He takes the field
with stirrups that extend to the top of his calves and begins a
game-long dance that evolves pitch by pitch. He flaps his elbows,
squeezes his fist, points, shrugs, grimaces, nods, jumps, kicks
and writhes. He swivels his torso after one pitch and gyrates his
hips after the next. After a big strikeout he busts a move that
would make John Travolta proud, mock-shooting his victim with his
forefinger and thumb.

As he pitches, Lima mutters, and whether he has thrown a good
inning or a bad one, he comes off the field jabbering to himself
in Spanish, often with his face buried in his glove. "I've got my
midget in there," he explains. "A little me. When I'm not
pitching well, I'm saying, 'C'mon, you're stupid, what are you
f---ing doing? Relax!' When I'm pitching good, I'm calmer. I just
remind myself how good I am."

Lately the little Lima has been hearing a lot of sweet nothings.
Through Sunday, Lima boasted a 9-2 record, was tied for the
National League lead in wins and had an impressive 2.80 ERA. He
had put together an eight-game winning streak, and only once had
he allowed more than three earned runs in a game. Furthermore,
for all his extroversion, Lima has shown remarkable control: In
his most recent victory, over the Milwaukee Brewers, he had
walked none, struck out eight and thrown 71 of his 98 pitches
for strikes. For the season he had yielded just 1.46 bases on
balls per nine innings, ranking second among major league
starters behind the Atlanta Braves' Greg Maddux. Lima, who
entered last season with a record of 9-22 over four years as a
starter and reliever with Houston and the Detroit Tigers, had
won 17 of his last 21 decisions and was threatening to leapfrog
righthander Shane Reynolds and lefthander Mike Hampton and
become the ace of the National League Central-leading Astros'
staff, whose 3.77 ERA was second in the majors, behind only the
Braves' 3.75.

Lima's success is partly the result of maturation, including his
realization that what got him signed as a 16-year-old in the
Dominican Republic and carried him through the
minors--challenging hitters with a good but not overpowering
fastball and then relying on a lethal changeup to get them
out--wasn't enough to win in the majors. "When he came here
[before the 1997 season as part of a 10-player trade with
Detroit], he was this very competitive guy who had a resilient
arm out of the bullpen and a changeup that got him out of
trouble," says Houston pitching coach Vern Ruhle. "He was too
aggressive. He got his pitches up, and hitters were waiting for
them. Last year he added a slider and a sinking fastball, and
now he locates all his pitches well. I used to think he was too
excitable and had to tone himself down. It wasn't that--he's
just as excitable now."

In his years with the Tigers, Lima was a spare part on
baseball's worst team. Now that he's on a good club and is
established in the rotation, he's pitching with the panache of
Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. "Every time I go out, I know I'm
going to do well, and the team's going to do well," he says.
"Jose Lima's pitching? We're gonna win. We're gonna have a good

Don't think, however, that the 26-year-old Lima's ebullience on
the field and his exhibitionism in the clubhouse are the traits
of a man drunk on success. That's just Lima being Lima. Even in
the minors and during his ineffective early big league years, he
was the clubhouse live wire, the dancing fool. "He's always been
the same--a riot," says Detroit pitcher Justin Thompson. "The
guy is loud, and he is crazy. And he always sang."

Lima records his melodies during the off-season, part of which
he spends back home with his extended family in the Dominican
town of Las Charcas. His second album will be released in the
U.S. by Montano Records later this month. (The first CD was
independently produced and isn't available in the States.) On it
Lima leads a 13-piece band called La Fuga (the Escape). The CD's
title, El Mambo de Lima, refers not to a particular dance or to
the songs' get-up-and-shake-it beat but to Lima's overall
outlook. His is a life of perpetual celebration. "Oh, this is a
good life," he says. "I love to pitch, I love to sing. They're
both in my heart. It's why I get so pumped up on the mound and
why, when I see a band up there, I have to get up and sing."

Lima writes lyrics wherever inspiration strikes--in the dugout,
at the pregame card table--and his teammates welcome the
blasting of his lively tunes, which invariably transform the
clubhouse into a sea of bobbing heads. Lima's voice, resonant
and energetic, occasionally gives way in mid-song to a
calculated burst of laughter.

One song, Los Pantalones (The Pants), is about trying to
persuade a sexy woman who is wearing blue jeans to change into a
pair of tight cutoff shorts. On another track, La Gozadera (The
Party), which will be promoted as the single off the new disk,
Lima sings at incredible speed, "Parate a batear que te voy a
alimar." In other words: "Step up to the plate, I'm going to
strike you out."

"This is my mambo, the band's mambo," Lima said last week while
cranking the CD player loud enough to shake the still lifes on
the walls of his Milwaukee hotel room.

In his younger days Lima thought his career would be the mambo
and not the mound. The oldest of seven children, he grew up in a
three-room house on a fertile plot of land outside the city of
Santiago. His father, Francisco Rodriguez, was a catcher for 12
years on a touring Dominican amateur team and supported his
wife, Nurys Lima, and his seven children by working for the
local lottery system and running out roosters for cockfights.
The Limas never lacked for food--they kept farm animals and
cultivated mangoes and plantains--but Jose began supplementing
his family's income at age 11 by singing in nightclubs. At 13 he
entered a competition at a festival and sang before a gathering
of thousands. He belted out a song from the Villa-Lobos operetta
Magdalena, outperforming nine other vocalists to win.

His success prompted Jose to attend music classes. He became so
intent on a singing career that he might never have played
baseball beyond the sandlots. When he turned 15, however,
Francisco asked him to give ball playing a serious effort, and
Jose joined a team in the Dominican youth league. He pitched
(going 9-0), played centerfield and was named his league's MVP.
When he turned 16, after just one year of organized baseball,
the Tigers signed him. "Ever since then," says Lima, "I have
been a hot dog."

To be sure, there are some players who abhor his showmanship.
"It's the weakest act in baseball," complains Brewers pitcher
Steve Woodard. Adds Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Al Martin,
"The crap he does gets to you. You want him to give it a rest."

Many other players, however, agree with Milwaukee second baseman
Fernando Vina, who said before going 0 for 4 against Lima last
week, "Why should it bother anyone? People should see that Jose
is just being himself. He's a good man with a good heart."

Says Lima, "Baseball is a short career, and I'm going to enjoy
every single day. Everybody should. If you don't like what I do,
take me deep. You can dance around at every base if you want, I
don't mind. I'm not going to stop being who I am."

Who Lima is, it turns out, is one of the most affable, least
pretentious men in the majors. One night last week in Milwaukee,
he sauntered around the field during batting practice with his
glove atop his head and then paused before going out to play
catch in the outfield to hug several opposing players, three
members of the Brewers' grounds crew, two ushers and a dozen
fans whom he has befriended over the years. Lima's
autograph-signing sessions are the stuff of legend. "If you
don't have [his autograph], you haven't tried to get it," says
Dierker. After a tough 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs in his first
start of this season, Lima was driving away from the Astrodome
when he saw a throng of young fans. He parked, got out and spent
an hour with a pen in his hand. During a rain delay in Detroit a
few years ago, he stood on the field during the downpour signing
for anyone hardy enough to come meet him. "He can't help being
open and friendly," says Melissa, who met Jose while he was
signing autographs after a game in Seattle in 1996. "He had to
get his cell phone number changed because he was getting 100
messages a day. One hundred, no kidding."

If there has been a dark time in Lima's life, it came in 1997,
shortly after he had been traded and had gone through a divorce.
Lima, then still a two-pitch pitcher, couldn't get anyone out.
He sometimes sat in the bullpen for a fortnight without being
used. "His act was getting old," says Dierker. "He was a big
personality in the clubhouse, but it was hard to be impressed,
because he was pitching so lousy."

At the beginning of last season, the Astros had yet to settle on
a starter for their fourth game. Lima, coming off a 1-6 season
and a spring training in which he had put up an 8.16 ERA, went
to Dierker and Ruhle and all but demanded the ball. "You could
see how badly he wanted to start," says Ruhle. "He was so
determined. Larry gave him the start."

Lima says he went into that game, against the potent Colorado
Rockies, assuming it might be the last start of his career. He
allowed one run and four hits in seven innings. By the middle of
May he was 6-1. When he struggled at midseason, he and Ruhle
phased in the slider and the sinker, which became reliable out
pitches for Lima. He wound up 16-8 with a 3.70 ERA.

You can't overstate the glee with which Lima celebrates the song
of himself, nor can you blame him. He's pitching like an
All-Star, earning $1.95 million--plenty to support his family
back home--and is set to cash in as a free agent this winter.
His CD will be in record stores any day now. Most of all, last
July 4 was dependence day for Lima: Jose Jr. was born.

"I was afraid he would not be a responsible father," says
Melissa. "I mean, here's a guy I always catch in front of the
mirror dancing around in his underwear. But he takes great care
of Jose Jr." And, Melissa adds, "he sings to him every day."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGINCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN Self glove With a hat full of tributes to injured Astros, Lima stays pumped by chatting with the "midget" in his mitt.COLOR PHOTO: STEVE WEWERKA Sign him up Melissa met Jose at an autograph session.
"If you don't like what I do, take me deep," says Lima. "You
can dance around at every base--I don't mind."