(Jon SooHoo/AP Photo/Los Angeles Dodgers)
The big man wearing the crazy mustard-colored, three-piece suit and the bright red Angels cap introduced his son, who smiled shyly, shook hands firmly and nodded yes he plays baseball.
The 11-year-old boy admitted finally his fastball is pushing 70 mph, but that he really loves to hit, and the big man, who used to pitch a little himself, laughed and pulled the boy so close that suit nearly swallowed him up.
“Throws hard,” the man said. “You should see him.”
The boy squirmed.
His father, just 37 years old, is gone, suffering an apparent heart attack early Sunday morning.
“He just went in his sleep,” said Dan Evans, the former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager who’d signed Lima six years ago, remained his friend and early Sunday morning was with the Lima family.
Evans’ voice broke.
“I loved the man,” he said.
Born in Santiago, Dominican Republic, in 1972, Lima won 89 games over 13 major league seasons, 37 over two seasons – 1998-99 – with the Houston Astros and 13 for the Dodgers in 2004. Alive with energy and enthusiasm, his starts – his electric persona, even – became known as “Lima Time,” even as his ability to get outs faded.
Planning a return to the big leagues, Lima pitched in the Dominican winter league in 2007, in Korea in 2008 and for the independent Long Beach Armada and Edmonton Capitals in 2009. Recently, however, Lima had turned to developing a youth baseball academy in Pasadena, Calif., which quickly drew more than 250 applicants, attending high school games with Evans, and getting on with life after baseball.
On Friday night he was at Dodger Stadium with Jose Jr., receiving a grand ovation from the crowd there. On Saturday night he went dancing with his girlfriend.
“He was doing so many great things in the community,” Evans said. “It was so wonderful to see his life get settled and that’s the shame – there are thousands of kids that would have been touched like so many of us were.”
Lima had big plans. From his suit jacket pocket, he produced glossy cards that touted his academy, which aimed to better the lives of L.A.’s youth through baseball. Photos of Lima – celebrating a strikeout, shushing a road crowd, just being Lima – leapt from both sides. He was proud of his new calling, this effort to build something meaningful for boys and girls he’d not yet met.
“It’s going to be great,” Lima had said.
Lima also reconnected with the Dodgers, recently joining the team’s alumni association, for which he would appear at community events.
The club issued a statement on behalf of owner Frank McCourt, which read, in part, “Though he was taken from us way too soon, he truly lived his life to the fullest and his personality was simply unforgettable. He had the ability to light up a room and that’s exactly what he did every time I saw him.”
In the organization’s most fallow period, Lima sang the national anthem before a game during the 2004 regular season, and in the playoffs pitched a five-hit shutout to beat the St. Louis Cardinals, the club’s first postseason win in 16 years.
“This guy had just a zest for life,” Evans said. “And he was planning on doing so much more. The terrible shame of it is, the thing that everybody loved so much about him – his heart – is what did him in.”
On Friday night at Dodger Stadium, Lima leaned over a rail, shook hands with friends and strangers, and loudly told them he was back, feeling good, ready for whatever was next.
“How are you, sir,” he shouted to an acquaintance, bowing and tipping a bright blue Dodgers cap.
“Hey-hey!” he greeted Mitch Poole, the Dodgers’ clubhouse manager.
Players on the field for batting practice yelled his name and waved. He smiled and pointed back to them, then gestured to the young man beside him, “My son,” he said, and the boy too would smile and wave.
The crowd of friends around Jose Lima grew, just as it always did, him laughing and them laughing, too, because that’s what it was to be with him.
Not two days later, Evans was on the phone in a hospital corridor, unable to make the slightest sense of Lima’s passing.
“He was one of the guys you liked to be around,” he said. “That part of me is gone and I miss him already. I can hardly come to grips with the wish I had one more conversation with him.”
Jose Jr., he said, was coping the best he could.
“Jose was so excited to be around him, to help him out,” Evans said. “They’d gone to that game Friday, they’d had a great time and Jose got that ovation. That’s his last impression of his dad.”