Jose Lima died of a heart attack this weekend, at the young age of 37.
Many of the Jose Lima tributes that I've read over the last 24 hours mention his 2004 playoff start for the Dodgers in the National League Division Series, in which we lost to the Cardinals three games to one. Lima was the One. And it was a big one--a complete game, five-hit, 4-0 shutout of a Cardinals team that would smoke us by four or more runs in the series' other three games.
At the time, the Dodgers hadn't won a postseason series GAME since our World Series Championship year of 1988 (we had a measly two prior playoff appearances between 1988 and 2004, and got swept each time). So with Lima as our starter for Game 3, as the series moved back to Los Angeles, with our home team down 2-0 (Odalis Perez getting knocked out in the third inning of Game 1; Jeff Weaver knocked out in the fifth inning of Game 2), and manager Jim Tracy lost in his typical death spirals of rhetorical questions--our prospects weren't very positive.
For Lima to pull off a win, just a single win, at that time, against that sort of negative context and track record, energizing the crowd and demonstrating that we could flourish in the postseason after all; well, it was pretty awesome. It was like a lifting of a cloud. And we have Lima to thank for the only postseason ray of sunshine between 1988 and 2008, when we finally started winning not only individual postseason games, but collective postseason series as well.
As long-time readers of this blog may recall, I wasn't able to make that 2004 playoff game. So the Lima moment I want to reference was a sidebar, an experience that isn't caught in any record books, or on any cameras, and would be otherwise lost to history except for the indelible impression it made on one or two individuals' memories.
In the 2004 season, Lima was a mesmerizing personality amongst a largely bland and unremarkable roster of individuals (save Milton Bradley, of course). Led by the ever-stoic Jim Tracy, players like Shawn Green, Alex Cora, Jayson Werth (before he grew the goatee and some confidence), Juan Encarnacion, Kaz Ishii (and reserves like Jason Grabowski, Robin Ventura, Olmedo Saenz, and Hee-Seop Choi) weren't exactly going to fire up the crowds with their enthusiasm-building antics (despite Dodger Stadium's incessant attempts to drum a three-beat count during the latter's at bats, imploring fans to chant Hee-Seop's three-syllable name like mindless lemmings; I, on the other hand, would try to scream Choi's loathsome batting average ("TWO-FOUR-EIGHT!")). This group of Dodgers was largely sedate, somewhat personality-less, and pretty mellow.
Against this backdrop, the demonstrative Lima definitely stood out. He was captivating not only when he took the mound every fifth day, but also on his non-starting days, when he would stand up at the rail of the Dodgers dugout and look back at the crowd, engaging them in conversations, or doing a little jig, or smiling and just soaking it all in. It was like Lima knew he was a celebrity, as if he were personally responsible for keeping people interested in the game and the team, even on his off-days when he wasn't even expected to work at all.
I was sitting in seats just behind the Dodgers dugout, about six or seven rows back on the field level, one night in 2004. And in between innings, Lima was up on the top step of the dugout looking back toward the crowd, around our seating area. And in this immediate area were only three people: me, a little girl, and her father.
Lima picked out a baseball, and threw a soft overhand toss that was arcing right to the three of us. The little girl held out her arms, sort of wanting to catch the ball but sort of wanting the ball to just go away. And since I had another foot or two of height on the little girl, and her father was seated and immobilized by the oversized tray of nachos on his lap, and I had my baseball glove on anyway, I snagged the ball in the air.
At which point, Lima looked at me, with slightly-bulging eyes and a big fatherly smile, and said, "Now give it to the little girl."
Now, there was nothing Lima could do to enforce this, short of pulling a Chad Kreuter. I had snagged the ball cleanly. It was mine, fair and square. And in fact, the girl wasn't all that disappointed to not get the ball; she wasn't whining or complaining or anything. I could have kept it, and been done with the situation altogether.
But the right thing to do, clearly, was to give the ball to the girl. I knew it. Lima knew it. And the little girl, who by this time was sort of just watching the whole episode unfold almost like a spectator, might not have known it--but she could be taught this important lesson of chivalry at this point. Lima, from his position ten feet away, was still looking at me as if to say, "You know what the right thing to do is." And I did.
So I handed the ball to the little girl. She and her father were profusely thankful, and the girl beamed with an excitement that I am certain solidified her lifetime love of baseball and all of its magic (and her clutching the ball for the rest of the game reinforced how treasured that ball was to her). I was down one baseball, but that was more than compensated by passing on such happiness, a level of joy that was beyond what I would have gained from retaining the ball in the first place.
And Lima was able to preside over all of this, mediating right and wrong from a distanced position inside the dugout like a judge from behind the bench. While other players were content to just come to the stadium, do their job, and remain anonymous, Lima saw his role as an interactive entertainer that went well beyond strikes and balls. Lima mouthed a "thank you" to me and tipped the brim of his cap. I looked back at him with a smile. The girl was happy, I was happy, and Lima was happy. Everybody wins.
And just like that, Lima's court was out of session. Lima went back down into the dugout steps. And the game resumed.
Thank you, Jose Lima, for your outsized personality and for helping make the game of baseball so much fun, for "kids" of all ages. You will be missed.
photo not taken by SoSG AC: Jeff Gross / Getty Images