I was listening to yet another loss by my beloved Houston Astros on Sunday when Milo Hamilton's usually comforting voice began to startle me.
I had walked away from the radio but got back about the third inning or so, and Hamilton and his fellow announcers were talking about Jose Lima in the past tense.
It had been nine seasons since Lima pitched for the Astros, but something didn't seem right. The broadcasters relived some of his exploits in Houston and elsewhere for a few minutes, and then I heard the news I was expecting to hear but hoping I wouldn't.
Lima Time had passed, at age 37, from a heart attack.
My first reaction was shock, and sadness crept in soon thereafter. Then, the more I thought about the affable Dominican who played for six teams during a 13-year major league career, I couldn't help but smile.
Lima had that effect on people, whether he was celebrating after a strikeout or singing and dancing on commercials for Casa Ole, a Houston-based Tex-Mex restaurant. He had that effect on me, too, both as an Astros fan and as a sports writer.
Lima was one of my favorites during his four-plus seasons in Houston, both because of his animated antics on the field and his memorable 1999 season. He won 21 games that year, was a National League All-Star and finished fourth in the Cy Young Award race.
Then I had the privilege of meeting Lima shortly before the 2001 season, when I covered an exhibition game between the Astros and Round Rock Express for the student newspaper at the University of Texas. Lima was one of the starting pitchers, and I wanted to interview him for my story.
So I walk into the clubhouse after the game, and there's Lima, decked out in a sky blue suit with bright white shoes and about 50 pounds of jewelry, and speaking Spanish on his cell phone about a million miles a minute.
At first I thought, "Oh, great. I'm going to ask this hot shot for an interview, and he won't even acknowledge me." But that wasn't the case at all.
Before he was finished with his phone conversation, Lima looked over at me and motioned for me to sit down next to him. As soon as he hung up, he shook my hand, looked me in the eye and gave honest, thoughtful answers to all of my questions, even the one about him losing 16 games and leading the league in home runs allowed the year before.
That 2000 season, when the Astros moved from the spacious Astrodome to hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park, was the beginning of the end of Lima's good times in Houston. As Hamilton said during Sunday's broadcast, Lima's first words after seeing the short porch in left field were, "I can no pitch here."
He was traded to Detroit early in the 2001 season and then bounced around for the next five years, making stops in Kansas City, Los Angeles and New York. He had a decent year with the Dodgers in 2004, winning 13 games and then hurling a five-hit shutout in the playoffs, but he was out of the majors two years later.
Lima had since slipped into baseball anonymity, pitching in Korea in 2008 and for an independent league team in California last year, before his sudden death in Los Angeles put him back in the spotlight.
It's awfully unfortunate that a good man had to die for baseball fans to think about him again, but at least Lima made us smile one last time.
I suspect he would have been happy about that, because having a good time is what Lima Time was all about.
To comment on this story:
email@example.com l 766-8733
firstname.lastname@example.org l 766-8735