Who knew that when Jose Lima was called up to the Tigers in 1994 he would become a 20-game winner and a big-league character? Lima, whose best seasons in the majors came as a member of the Astros, died this morning at his home in Los Angeles of an apparent heart attack. He was just 37 years old.
The cause of death was ruled a heart attack, according to his wife, Dorca Astacio.
“Jose was complaining while sleeping and I just thought he was having a nightmare,” Astacio told ESPNdeportes.com. “I called the paramedics, but they couldn’t help him.”
Lima signed with the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1989 and arrived in Detroit during the 1994 season, appearing in just three games. In 1995 he was primarily a starter for the last club Sparky Anderson would manage. Lima posted as 3-9 record with 6.11 ERA. The following year he split time between the rotation and the bullpen finishing at 5-6 with three saves.
In Houston, Lima’s career slowly took off — thanks largely to the spacious Astrodome. Lima’s first year in Houston, when he was used in relief, looked much like his years in Detroit: 1-6, 5.28 ERA. In 1998 Lima became a fixture in the Astros’ rotation, starting 33 games, tossing 233 innings and posting a 16-8 record with a 3.70 ERA.
However it was in 1999 — the Astros’ final season at the Dome — that Jose Lima became a household name and when he declared each start as Lima Time. That season Lima was 21-10, threw 246 innings, named an All Star, and finished fourth in the N.L. Cy Young voting. About the same time, yours truly moved to Houston and was looking forward to seeing a transformed Jose Lima — transformed from the one I’d seen at Tiger Stadium.
The Astros opened Enron Field to much fanfare. The club had won three straight N.L. Central titles and had a terrific nucleus: second baseman Craig Biggio, first baseman Jeff Bagwell, outfielders Richard Hidalgo and Moises Alou. The problem was, Enron Field played much, much smaller than the Astrodome and Houston pitchers were developing whiplash watching balls fly out of the park. Before long, the stadium earned the name Home Run Field.
In 2000, Lima’s record plunged to 7-16 and his ERA nearly doubled to 6.65. Worse yet, he gave up a league-leading 48 homers and 145 earned runs (in 196.1 innings pitched).
And now a personal reflection: This was the same time that Lima was a featured spokesman for the Houston-area chain of Mexican restaurants, Casa Ole. In the TV ads Lima led a conga line around the restaurant and sang the jingle “Casa Ole…fresh to-day…” And at the end of the commercial he reminded us to “ask for the free sopapilla!”
In 2001 it was clear the Astros had decided Lima peaked in 1999. His line of 1-2, 7.30 ERA in nine starts led Houston to look for a trade partner and it found one in Smith (the son of Astros executive Tal Smith). The Astros and Tigers swapped struggling righties: Detroit welcomed back Lima and Houston got Dave Mlicki who won 14 games for the Tigers in 1999, only six in 2000 and was off to a 4-8 start in ’01.
Lima returned to the Tigers saying all the right things about a triumphant return to his roots but his performance looked a lot like the 1995 and 2000 version. In 2001, he posted a 5-10 record and 4.71 ERA in 18 starts. The following season was his last in Detroit and he pitched much like that dismal 2002 club’s 55-106 record would lead one to believe: 4-6 with a 7.77 ERA. The Tigers released him on September 7.
While the Tigers were busy losing 119 games in 2003, Lima was pitching for the Royals and going 8-3. The next year he won 13 games for the Dodgers and even earned his only postseason victory over the Cardinals in the NLDS. He returned to the Royals in 2005 going 5-16. Lima’s final big-league season was in 2006 when he pitched poorly for the Mets — 0-4, 9.87 ERA in four starts. His career line: 89-102, 5.26 ERA.
It was hard not to like Jose Lima. Even when he was pitching poorly in Houston after his terrific 1999 season, fans were drawn to him. The man never lost his self confidence even when the results on the field indicated that he was washed up.
Baseball doesn’t have many characters anymore — at least none that don’t seem contrived. Jose Lima was a pure character and the game could’ve used him for a while longer.
It’s a shame that Lima Time has ended for good.