When Lima Time Played in Detroit

In the long history of Detroit sports, only a few players exhibited the charisma and showmanship that poured out of José Lima, a colorful pitcher who won only 17 games in a Tigers uniform.

That’s because Lima wore his confidence like a suit of armor. His bravado and entertaining antics, something he dubbed “Lima Time,” was a large reason he lasted 19 years in professional baseball. For five seasons with Detroit, Lima was at times nearly as exciting as Mark “The Bird” Fidrych had bene on the mound in the Motor City.

What made Lima unusual? It was his the way the Dominican right-hander wore his emotions on his sleeve. When Jose was on the bump, his successes and failures played out in dramatic fashion for everyone to see. It could be both endearing and infuriating.

Once, after Lima pitched a complete game victory over the Marlins for the Astros, the opposing pitcher, a man named Brian Meadows, griped to the press about Jose’s antics. During his win, Jose celebrated strikeouts, clapped when his teammates made good plays behind him, and waved his hands in the air after he executed his pitches. Lima wasn’t happy with Meadows, and the next day he showed up at a Houston radio station unannounced and stayed on the air for more than two hours, calling Meadows a “crybaby.”

Other athletes might have been skewered for such an antic, but Lima was just being Lima.

But Lima almost never got to strut his stuff in America. That’s because he was a ho-hum prospect in his native Dominican Republic. Scouts clocked his fastball at 90 miles per hour at its best, and Jose didn’t have a particularly impressive array of off-speed pitches either. At 6’2 with skinny legs and a pot belly, he was not a prototypical pitching prospect. The Tigers offered him a paltry $2,000 to sign as a 17-year old free agent off the island in 1990.

“[T]his kid, he had so much confidence in himself, like no one that I ever signed. He was a true believer in himself. He always believed,” said Ramon Pena, the scout who signed Lima for Detroit.

The first time Jose pitched as a pro in the U.S., it was in Connecticut in the Appalachian League for the Bristol Tigers. The team didn’t have a pitching coach, and manager Ken Cunningham had his hands full simply serving as a father figure to his young players. Lima, out of his native country for the first time, was a ball of energy, and that first season, even as a teenager, showed that he was not intimidated by pitching in a professional setting.

“I was impressed [that] Jose was so confident,” said Bristol teammate Danny Bautista, an 18-year old Tigers prospect also from the Dominican. “He wanted the ball and he loved battling for his teammates.”

There weren’t any prospect rankings in the early 1990s, but if there had been, Jose Lima wouldn’t have been on them. But, his guts allowed him to advance to High-A Lakeland by 1992, where he went 5-11 but had a solid 3.16 ERA in 25 starts. His changeup had developed to such a level that Lima recorded 137 strikeouts and only 21 walks in 151 innings.

In 1994, Lima started the season at Toledo in Triple-A, where he and Bautista and other top Tigers minor leaguers stood one step away from The Show. In late April, when David Wells went on the injured list, the organization summoned Lima to the big leagues. His first start came under the watchful eye of Sparky Anderson. At the time the team was struggling with its pitching: in six of Detroit’s first 13 games, the staff allowed seven runs or more.

“He might become our ace,” Sparky joked.

At Tiger Stadium on April 20, 1994, Lima Time debuted in Detroit, when the 21-year old Jose toed the rubber against the Royals. He retired his first batter, Vince Coleman, on a routine grounder to Lou Whitaker. Lima set down the Royals 1-2-3 in the first, but in the second he allowed back-to-back home runs to Gary Gaetti and Dave Henderson. He eventually went four innings, allowing six runs.

“I have to make better pitches,” Lima said, “but I know what big leaguers look like now.”

That was the only start Jose made for Detroit in 1994. He was back in Toledo in May, but had his eye on returning to the Tigers. In 1995 he succeeded when the team called him up in mid-season to be a replacement in their rotation. In 15 starts, Lima was punished to the tune of a 6.11 ERA< but his confidence was rarely shaken.

“He never acted like he didn’t belong,” said Juan Samuel, a teammate of Jose’s in Detroit in 1995.

In Detroit he impressed everyone with his confidence, and also his singing voice. Lima loved to sing, and twice he actually performed the National Anthem before games at Tiger Stadium. Many of his teammates spoke of Jose’s knack for singing in the dugout or serenading reporters after games in the clubhouse. “Every day is Lima Time,” Jose chirped.

The Tigers were impatient with Lima, and in 1996 they sent him to the bullpen. With his theatrics, he should have been a natural as a late-innings closer, but Jose sulked in the role. At the winter meetings he was included in a nine-player trade between Detroit and Houston.

With the Astros, Lima became a star, albeit briefly. In 1998 he corralled his pitching repertoire and won 16 games with a 3.70 ERA. He led the league in K/BB ratio, and tossed his first (and only) MLB shutout. That’s the season the righty really let loose with his on-field antics.

As part of Lima Time, which served as both a nickname and an event, Jose would strut, prance, and dance when he felt the need on the mound. It might be a swing-and-miss, or a great defensive play behind him, or it could be part of a performance to serve as motivation for himself. The fans ate it up. In 1999 he really became a Houston favorite. That season Lima won 21 games and was named the All-Star team. In the game played at Fenway Park, he pitched a scoreless inning for the National League. It was the pinnacle of “Lima Time.”

In Houston, his teammates appreciated Jose’s charisma. So did fans. One time, Lima accepted an invitation from a fan to play on an amateur softball team. He showed up on an off day for the Astros and played first base. He also never shied away from being aggressive on the field.

Twice with Houston, Lima lost his composure when taken out of starts by manager Larry Dierker or pitching coach Burt Hooton. He also used his mediocre fastball to intimidate batters when needed. That only served to rankle some.

“You want to get some kind of revenge against Lima,” Jay Payton said after the he was hit by a pitch from Lima.

Detroit needed a second dose of Jose, and just prior to the mid-season trade deadline in 2001, Houston dealt him back to the Tigers. But he never regained his All-Star form.

“When he’s on, it’s Lima Time,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillén remarked. “When he’s not, it’s opposition time.”

The Tigers were a miserable team, and Lima was jettisoned after posting an ugly 7.77 ERA in 20 games in 2002. But his long baseball odyssey was far from over, and his shining moment was still ahead of him.

In 2004, the Dodgers rewarded Lima with a spot on their pitching staff. By June he was in the rotation, and LA was in a battle for first place. Lima pitched well for the Dodgers, and once again he proved to be popular.

“I can safely say that every one of his teammates loved him,” manager Jim Tracy told The Athletic in a 2020 story. “If you came in and weren’t having the greatest of days, whatever it was that upset you, you had to let go of it. He made you.”

Pitching in the shadows of Hollywood, something seemed to snap into place for Jose, who thrilled fans at Dodger Stadium with his showmanship. After he entered the LA rotation for good in early June, the Dodgers went 14-6 in his starts. Helped by an international rotation that featured Dominicans Lima and Odalis Perez, Japanese stars Hideo Nomo and Kazuhisa Ishii, and American Jeff Weaver, Los Angeles won the NL West.

The Cardinals pounded the Dodgers in the first two games of the 2004 NL Division Series. That’s when Tracy turned to Lima Time for Game Three at Dodger Stadium. That night, in front of a standing-room only crowd at Chavez Ravine, Lima was masterful. He held the Cards lineup to only five hits, shutting them out to win 4-0. All the while, Jose flashed his smile, thumped his chest, and danced and celebrated with practically every out he recorded.

It was the first win by the Dodgers in the postseason in 16 years, and it earned Jose a standing ovation and an on-field interview following his 1-2-3 ninth inning.

“I [am] happy to win for my teammates,” Lima said, not even trying to conceal a huge grin. “[This is] my biggest moment in baseball. Lima Time has arrived!”

The Dodgers were eliminated the next evening, but Lima’s performance became legendary for a franchise still years away from becoming what they are now: a dynasty.

The years following his 2004 playoff masterpiece were tough for Jose. He pitched briefly for the Royals and Mets, then continued to play professionally in the Caribbean World Series, the Mexican League, and even Korea, where he delighted fans who were confused but also enthralled by Jose’s spirited performances on the hill.

He pitched his last game in the Dominican Winter League in 2009. The following May he was having trouble sleeping through the night when his wife heard him gasp early in the morning in the bedroom of their Pasadena home. Lima was dead of a heart attack at the still young age of 37.

Though it’s been many years since Lima Time was on display in Detroit, LA, or anywhere, those who were lucky enough to witness Jose Lima on a baseball field will never forget his childlike enthusiasm.