I’d like to be not such a hardass toward my team. I’d like to not be so realistic about the tendencies of its individual components. I’d like to like the players I like without not being able to stand them when their performances unequivocally merit disdain.
I’d have liked to have been a more steadfast supporter of Jose Lima while he was a Met. I really liked Lima, right up to the minute he began pitching for us. I wanted him to succeed as a Met. He most surely didn’t in the conventional sense. I was relatively slow to — as was said far too often in the past decade — throw him under the bus, but eventually an ERA of almost 10 after four starts will have even the most sympathetic supporter calling the pitcher who posts it a cab out of town.
Jose Lima, No. 17 as a Met, was a Met for 17 days and pitched 17.1 innings. Yet it seems like he was around a lot longer and did a lot more. He left an impression. The impression is not instantly flattering, not with 9.87 earned runs allowed per 9 innings pitched.
Lima’s Met time was three turns through the rotation in the middle of May 2006 and one more try in early July. He wasn’t part of the plan. The ’06 Mets were, despite their yearlong pacesetting in the National League, often short of starters. Injuries impinged on their depth beginning in late April when Brian Bannister’s right hamstring gave out on the basepaths in San Francisco. Young John Maine was Bannister’s replacement, but his right middle finger (one he’s probably used a lot lately) gave him trouble after only one start, and he was disabled. Next came and went Victor Zambrano, who felt severe pain in his right elbow while pitching against the Braves. He grimaced, bore down, struck out Andruw Jones for the first out of the top of the second inning and then left the Shea mound never to return.
The Mets rose through the standings even as their starting pitchers dropped like flies. Lots of offense and lots of relief catapulted the team to a 21-9 record and a 5-game lead over the second-place Phillies in the N.L. East by the first weekend in May — this despite their rotation having become Pedro Martinez, T#m Gl@v!ne, Steve Trachsel and a pair of recurring TBAs.
Into this paradoxical breach stepped Jose Lima.
When Jose Lima appeared in Port St. Lucie that February, those who knew better rolled their eyes all over the Internet. The Mets were casting about for any and all arms available. They came up with one that threw very little that worked in 2005 when he was a Royal (Wins Above Replacement rating: -2.1). Now he was 33 and his sole appeal seemed to be that he had been around and had been successful not all that long ago. Scoffing could be heard all across cyberspace. What a retrograde signing! This is the kind of philosophy that ruins baseball! “Experience” is a crutch!
That’s what it sounded like to me, anyway. I wasn’t much counting on seeing Jose Lima as a Met, and if we did, I was confused as to why it would automatically be a bad thing. Wasn’t this guy a winner as recently as 2004? He was. He went 13-5 for the Dodgers. He threw a shutout in the NLDS against the Cardinals. It wasn’t that long ago, was it?
Unlike many shadowy longshot pitching candidates in a given Spring Training, I actually knew who Jose Lima was, or at least who Jose Lima had been. He was an unabashed cut-up in a sport generally shy of confirmed extroverts. Pedro Martinez was one of those types. Martinez was giddy when he learned Lima was coming to the Mets. “This is going to be one crazy clubhouse,” he said. Quite an endorsement.
It wasn’t the most hilarious thing in the world, nor was it intended to be, that he came to camp and casually mentioned he planned to wear No. 42, his number when he was winning 21 games for the Astros in 1999, the one Houston assigned him in 1997, just before it was otherwise removed from circulation to honor Jackie Robinson. Lima did not maintain 42 as he moved on to other teams, so he was no longer “grandfathered” in the way Mo Vaughn was when he came to the Mets in 2002. Thus, Jose Lima wasn’t going to come to the Mets and get Jackie Robinson’s number (in fact, they tried to give him 99). Lima didn’t make a huge deal of it when his request was denied, but I liked his obliviousness to the sacred. It might have seemed self-absorbed coming from another player, but it felt human from Jose Lima.
Jose the human went down to Norfolk after Spring Training, his veteran right arm hidden from harm’s way until Bannister and Maine and Zambrano all fell onto the DL. Then it was Lima Time, May 7, 2006, his first start as a Met, at Shea, against the Braves.
And he was really bad. Let’s not pretend he wasn’t. He was terrible. The Braves hit him hard. Five days later, the Brewers hit him hard. Six days after that, the Cardinals did the same thing. Designation for assignment followed shortly thereafter; nobody else signed him, so he returned to Norfolk. After another month or so in the minors, a series of unfortunate Met events — Alay Soler’s flameout, Heath Bell’s implosion, Pedro Martinez’s inflamed right hip — conspired to give him one more chance in Met colors and then as a Met starter.
The Marlins hit him hard. Dontrelle Willis reached him for a grand slam in the top of a six-run Florida fourth. Willie Randolph, probably still shocked that the opposing pitcher homered with the bases loaded, left Lima in to face one more batter, Alfredo Amezaga. Amezaga singled. Randolph then removed him. It was Jose Lima’s last batter faced as a major leaguer.
To recap, this is how Jose Lima’s 2006 with the Mets unfolded:
First Start — Pitched in 5 innings, surrendered at least 1 run in 4 of those innings.
Second Start — Pitched in 5 innings, surrendered at least 1 run in 2 of those innings.
Third Start — Pitched in 5 innings, surrendered at least 1 run in 3 of those innings.
Fourth Start — Pitched in 4 innings, surrendered at least 1 run in 2 of those innings.
Jose Lima participated in 19 innings and gave up runs in 11 of them. Everybody who said he wouldn’t be any good was right (Wins Above Replacement rating: -1.2). I who thought he was worth taking a flyer on was wrong. As if to compensate for my lack of cynicism in advance of his Met tenure, I raced to join the chorus of voices demanding his immediate dismissal from Shea Stadium, from Flushing, from Queens, from our midst forever.
This was me on July 5, 2006, before his fourth and final start as a Met:
I would have been content to have never been party to the return of Lima Time, but I’ll admit I’m rooting for the guy to have one solid outing and not just because a guy in a Met uniform having a solid outing benefits us all. Both in spring training and during his last stay, Lima was a unifying force in the clubhouse. Everybody seemed to like him in a big way. Yeah, they said the same thing about Gerald Williams, but ya know what? This seems like a good time for a unifying force. For a team with a double-digit lead, its players have betrayed a touch of crabbiness. And who can blame them, with their record having loitered at convenience store level (7-11) since The Road Trip ended? If Lima can keep ’em loose for a few days, maybe that’s a contribution. […] Maybe Lima — who is motivated enough to keep pitching at AAA after his Major League embarrassment in May, so he must have some pride in avenging his prior performance — hangs through Sunday and we see one of the other Tides roll in after the break. After being certain the deployment of Jose Valentin was complete folly, I’m not going to kneejerk any veteran player move Omar makes, certainly not one that isn’t likely to amount to a hill of beans in the long run.
This was me on July 8, 2006, after his fourth and final start as a Met:
Lima Culpa. He’s worthless. Get him out of here. I don’t just mean DFA’d, which he’s been. Jose Lima can be of no help whatsoever as a pitcher in this organization. That spicy meatball he threw Dontrelle Willis with the bases loaded? I can’t believe he hit the whole thing. Nice fella, Lima, but let him loosen another team’s dugout. Good night, funny man.
With Jose Lima having just died of a heart attack at the ridiculously young age of 37, I feel bad that’s the last substantive appraisal I ever wrote about what he contributed to the Mets. I was trying to be a hardass toward my team. I was maybe the last Lima believer in 2006, had been burned for my faith and now I was going to make up for it with a little vitriol. Not that Jose Lima was likely to read what one blogger among a hundred had written — and not that Lima Time wasn’t up as a practical matter — but I kind of hate that I succumbed to the prevailing thought process of the day. Guy pitches bad? Condemn him. Shove him out the door. Forget why you had taken a liking to him in the first place, why just three days ago you were rooting for him and now you couldn’t tolerate his presence.
Yet it was his presence that drew me tentatively into Jose Lima’s corner during his brief Met stay. He didn’t have much of a right arm by that May, but he had an undeniable presence. It energized a clubhouse that was already revved for great things in 2006. “Lima Time” was already legendary as a most uncommon strain of charisma around baseball. No self-consciousness, no restraint in letting joy seep from his every step. Now it would be our Time on our team. It’s no coincidence that twice — once in February and once in May — the Times used the phrase “no laughing matter” in headlines over stories about Jose Lima. Jose Lima was synonymous with laughter. It may not have been enough to get batters out anymore, but it was a precious commodity in a sport where too many modern players put on game faces and mouth inoffensive platitudes when asked anything interesting.
Two images of Jose Lima stay with me from 2006, and neither of them involves his trudging off the mound in despair.
The first was from his first start, against the Braves, in a series finale. The Mets had won two thrillers in the first two games — a 14-inning, 8-7 triumph that twisted and turned until turning out all right after nearly five hours; and the truncated Zambrano start, which required the services of six relievers to finish successfully the last 7.2 innings of a 6-5 decision. With Atlanta reeling 9 games behind us in third place, anything we got from Lima would be gravy, but when you’re in the process of obliterating your archrivals’ dynasty, gravy can be awfully tasty.
As mentioned, we didn’t get more than a spoonful of gravy from Jose Lima that Sunday afternoon. Mostly we got screwed by Angel Hernandez and then Lima was pounded by Atlanta bats. Still, even all that took a bit of a back seat to what I witnessed before the game started.
On his way in from the Met bullpen, a fan seated along the railing on the first base side reached out to Jose Lima. The fan was wearing a Dodger jersey, No. 27. Jose saw that and reached right back out to the fan and hugged him.
The starting pitcher hugged a fan? On the day he was going to pitch? Minutes before he was about to pitch? They can do that?
Seriously, I had taken it as gospel that the starting pitcher never speaks to anyone when it’s His Day. His Day is sacred. He doesn’t talk to you and you don’t talk to Him. But that’s not how Jose Lima played it. Jose Lima was happy to be a major league pitcher again that Sunday. Why hide it?
The second image I maintain of Lima was from TV, from, as it happens, the Subway Series. It was Friday night at Shea against the Yankees, the game in which yet another transient 2006 starter, the late Geremi Gonzalez, was roughed up for four runs in the first inning, and we were presumed done from there. Yet facing Randy Johnson in the bottom of the first, the Mets roared right back, with Reyes walking, Lo Duca singling and Beltran homering. That made a game of it, a Grade A Subway Series contest, the kind of game that makes you forget Interleague play is a marketing contrivance that baseball did fine without for a century or so.
That game goes back and forth and then locks in at a 6-6 tie after five. It stays there until the bottom of the ninth when Mariano Rivera is deployed by Joe Torre to keep things tied. It does quite work out that way. A Lo Duca double, an intentional walk to Delgado and then, at last, a very long fly ball hit by David Wright over Johnny Damon’s head.
Mets 7 Yankees 6!
Yes, Lima Time! Leading the charge out of the Met dugout to congratulate Mr. Wright, to celebrate the Met victory, to revel in his teammates’ success was Jose Lima. Lima didn’t pitch that night. Lima hadn’t been a Met two weeks earlier. The day before, he was knocked around in St. Louis. The day after, he would be cut from the roster because St. Louis wasn’t an isolated incident. Yet Jose Lima was as much a Met as anybody that night when they came back on the Yankees. He wasn’t a mercenary. He wasn’t lost in his own drama. He was the absolute definition of a ballplayer who was just happy to be here.
You couldn’t not be happy if you noticed him that night.
Jose Lima’s immediate Met legacy coming out of his four 2006 starts was to be invoked every time we thought Omar Minaya was signing someone unnecessary, particularly starting pitchers who couldn’t go more than five innings or give up fewer than five runs. “Another Jose Lima,” we’d grumble. He’d become a brand name to us, and not the leading national brand, either. Meanwhile, as Lima’s New York teammates were marching to a division title, Jose returned to Norfolk and kept pitching. After 2006, he would pitch in Mexico, in Korea, in a pair of independent leagues in the United States. Last winter, he pitched for a team in his native Dominican Republic. He planned to do it again this winter. He showed over and over that it would be difficult for anyone to again find another Jose Lima.
Jose Lima loved baseball and was never shy about sharing the romance with the rest of us. It may not obliterate a 9.87 ERA or save you a spot in anybody’s rotation, but surely any time spent appreciating a person like Jose Lima was time well spent.
Check out what Lima’s former teammates on the current Mets told Matt Gagne in the Daily News about their old friend. And, echoing Jason’s sentiments, please read Joe Posnanski’s remembrance of Lima Time. That, too, will be time well spent.