HOUSTON -- When the Astros and Tigers swapped nine players in a blockbuster trade to follow the 1996 season, no one could have imagined that an unheralded right-hander named Jose Lima would turn out to be one of the most beloved Houston players of the era.
The Astros, led by Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell and pitchers Shane Reynolds and Mike Hampton, won four National League Central division titles in five years, beginning in 1997. But it was Lima who won over fans with his passion for the game and his charisma on and off the field. The trade with the Tigers marked the birth of Lima Time, and 20 years later, those who experienced it have fond memories.
“He was one of the greatest teammates I ever played with, from the standpoint that he loved playing,” Biggio said.
Lima was 24 years old when he was traded from the Tigers to the Astros with catcher Brad Ausmus, pitchers Trever Miller and C.J. Nitkowski and slugger Daryle Ward on Dec. 10, 1996, in exchange for pitchers Doug Brocail, Todd Jones, outfielder Brian Hunter, shortstop Orlando Miller and cash.
Former Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker called it “one of the crazier acquisitions we ended up making.”
Lima had posted a 6.24 ERA in 57 career games (20 starts) with the Tigers, and he certainly gave no indication of the success that lay ahead of him in Houston. He pitched in the bullpen with the Astros in 1997 before putting up a pair of improbable seasons as a starter on Houston’s playoff teams. He went 16-8 with a 3.70 ERA in ‘98 and 21-10 with a 3.58 ERA while making the NL All-Star team in ’99. He finished fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting that season.
Lima didn’t have overwhelming stuff, nor did he throw hard. He had a great changeup, which was his swing-and-miss pitch, even when hitters knew it was coming. And when he started winning, his confidence and swagger grew. That confidence bordered on overconfidence, said his former manager, Larry Dierker.
“He never really changed,” Dierker said. “He just challenged everybody and got away with a lot. Really, to be honest, those years at the [Astrodome], I was scratching my head and saying, ‘How is he doing this stuff?’ His stuff isn’t that good. And they’re getting great swings at him and he’s not giving up very many runs, and he’s pitching seven, eight, nine innings, and he’s laughing and jumping over foul lines and having a great time and putting the whole team in a good mood.”
Along the way, Lima endeared himself to fans by signing countless autographs, showing his emotions on the mound after strikeouts and even releasing a salsa CD. It earned him an endorsement for a local Tex-Mex restaurant, for which he appeared in television ads singing and dancing. He even had his own slogan: "Believe it!"
“My dad loved the city of Houston,” said his son, Jose Lima Jr. “There’s a video of him being interviewed in the dugout, and they just asked him, 'How do you feel about your fans and stuff?' and he’s like, ‘I know without the fans here spending money, buying tickets at the ballpark, I wouldn’t be getting paid.’ He was just appreciative for the opportunity to play baseball in the city of Houston.”
Lima’s success was short-lived. A fly-ball pitcher, Lima didn’t fair well when the Astros moved from the cavernous Astrodome to Enron Field in 2000. He gave up 48 home runs that season and went 7-16 in 33 starts. Lima Time was over. He was traded back to the Tigers in '01 and bounced around thereafter. He had a flash of success with the Dodgers in ‘04, going 13-5 and winning a playoff game, but he finished his career with the Mets two seasons later.
Lima died of a heart attack on May 23, 2010. He was 37 years old.
“He just went out there and had fun,” Biggio said. “That’s who he was. He pitched with emotion. If somebody hit a home run and walked around the bases backwards, he didn’t care. He was just a guy that was full of a lot of fun and excitement. Honestly, he was one of the greatest teammates I had, because he wanted everybody on his team to have success.”
Lima Jr. was too young to remember much about his father playing in the Astrodome. He does remember the move to Enron Field, though, and he knows how much fans loved his father.
“I do remember him carrying me on the field with him always, and I remember I’d be with my mom and she’d come get me from the nursery and see him after the game, staying and talking with fans and signing baseballs for whoever,” he said. “There would be kids in line, and he’d just keep signing and keep signing. A lot of players sign a few and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go,’ but one thing I do remember always is he went that extra mile to make sure everyone went home with a baseball, or at least he signed as many as he could. It was a really good time for me. We were really happy being in the city.”
Lima Jr., 21, attends the University of Houston at Clear Lake. He’s unsure about what he wants to do when he graduates, but he is studying human resources management. He umpires high school and college baseball games, and he undoubtedly gets asked about his dad once he introduces himself as Jose Lima Jr.
“They say, ‘Oh, there’s a baseball player that has the same name as you,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s my dad,’” he said. “Then we’ll start chatting and every story they give me is, ‘Oh man, I met him. Such a great guy.’ Always charismatic and so many happy stories. ‘He bought me a drink here, he gave my son a ball.’ You know what I mean? Just a bunch of cool stories.”
Fans reminiscing about Lima Time brings much joy to his son. The city was energized by the Astros and Lima, who was the opposite of stoic stars Biggio and Bagwell. All the stories Lima Jr. has heard about his father have been positive.
“I think that’s really special, because in order to be talked about after you’ve passed, I feel like you have to do something really bad or really good, and I feel like he was on the really good side,” he said. “I feel like he touched so many people and was a part of so many peoples’ lives that he’ll live on for a really long time in the city of Houston.”
When Lima passed away, Lima Jr. was 11 years old and living with his father. He hadn’t seen him for a few months when his dad called and asked him to come out to Los Angeles. Lima, who was living with his mom in Seattle, ended up moving to L.A. shortly before his dad died.
“At least I got to go spend that last month or two with him,” he said.
Now that he lives in the Houston area, Lima Jr. remains a huge Astros fan. He cried when Houston won the World Series in 2017, and he took it to heart when he saw a tweet from a fan about how the championship was for players like Ken Caminiti, Derek Bell and Jose Lima.
“It felt like whenever we won, that was [for] everybody,” he said. “That was [for] everything that had passed, every player who had played in our organization. It felt like that was all the product of them.”