Who knew that Long Beach would become Southern California’s last refuge for baseball dreamers, a place where hope and reality and off-kilter fastballs collide?
Consider this week’s action at the port city’s historic little Blair Field, max capacity 3,238. There, two enigmatic pitchers who once drank deeply the major league good life were the main attractions for the Long Beach Armada, a 5-year-old team in the independent Golden Baseball League.
On Friday, pitching in front of bleachers that were one-third empty, we found Jose Lima, the former All-Star known for creating wherever he goes a jocular, peppery, occasionally flaky and, to some, patently offensive way of being: Lima Time.
It has been 10 years since his best season, five since his memorable last playoff win with the Dodgers, three since he last pitched in the major leagues. But Lima, 36, hasn’t changed. Hoping against hope to make it back to the big leagues, he walks, talks and salsa-steps with the same ecstatic frenzy he’s always had.
He can also still hit the high notes. Before Saturday’s game, reprising a role he once had at Dodger Stadium, he sang the national anthem.
And Saturday’s pitcher? Yes, that was 40-year-old Hideki Irabu. In 1997, Irabu famously came to America from Japan, signing with the Yankees for $12.8 million. He was supposed to be the next big thing. But by 2002, after years of appearing unfazed by failure, the doughy Irabu and his 34-35 record were gone, never to be heard from by American baseball fans again. Until Saturday night.
How time changes things. Both men now make the league standard: roughly $2,000 a month. Instead of flying first-class charters and staying in five-star hotels, it’s now all about sitting cheek-to-jowl in coach, sleeping in Quality Inns and enduring five-hour bus rides to play rival Yuma.
Instead of throwing to the likes of catcher Jorge Posada, they throw to a guy whose best baseball days may well have come at Riverside Community College.
“We’re all here for the same thing,” Lima told me this week. “If you work hard and stay focused, no reason you can’t get picked up by some major league team.”
But you don’t need baseball, I countered, not after making millions playing in the pros since 1990.
He said rather than retiring to his Dominican Republic ranch he finds himself here because baseball is part of his fiber -- after an ugly season with the Mets in 2006 he played in Mexico and Korea and went 5-5 for an independent league team last year in Camden, N.J. (Independent teams like Camden and Long Beach aren’t affiliated with Major League Baseball, thus their reliance on castoffs and scrappers praying for one last chance.)
Lima knew Long Beach had provided a haven for Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco as they sought comebacks. He figured the Armada would give him a chance to be seen by big league teams in California, a place he has a soft spot for because of his successful year with the Dodgers in 2004, when he went 13-5 and shut out St. Louis for what until last season was the Dodgers’ only victory in a postseason game since the 1988 World Series.
He also had pressure from home.
“My little mother,” said the balding, slightly paunchy Lima, a glimmer in his eyes matching the diamond studs in his ears, “she wants to see me retire a major leaguer. I’m doing this for her. If I made it back and I died on the first pitch, it would be OK because I would have fulfilled her wish.”
Lima’s manager, ex-major league star Garry Templeton, thinks he still has the stuff. Going into Friday’s game he had a 1-1 record, a 1.44 earned-run average and 12 strikeouts in 25 innings. But Friday night, Lima got shelled: seven runs and 10 hits against the less-than-stellar Yuma Scorpions.
Ever the optimist -- even when, instead of a metal nameplate on his locker, there’s a torn strip of masking tape with “Lima Time” etched in pen -- the aging pitcher chalked that game up to bad luck.
“It feels so good to be back in California,” he said. “I hadn’t been back to L.A. since I played for the Dodgers. When I arrived at LAX there were some people who were looking like, ‘Is that Lima?’ I got the feeling what I did was special. Then I went to a Dodgers game and up on the Jumbotron they showed video from 2004. It was Lima Time again! I was so happy I was breaking out in sweat.”
Irabu, on the other hand, professes to be a lot hazier about his future. “I have no specific goal at this point, just enjoy,” he said, slowly smoking a cigarette as an interpreter relayed his words. The still chubby-cheeked pitcher, whose every move Saturday was followed by a phalanx of Japanese fans and media, insisted he’s not thinking much about the majors. He doesn’t want the pressure.
Since his last stint in baseball, Irabu has been happily ensconced in Southern California, living in Palos Verdes with his wife and two daughters. For a while, he owned a chain of noodle restaurants in the Torrance area. Baseball was but an afterthought. But as he described it, in January he began casually throwing batting practice at the Urban Baseball Academy in Compton. Surprisingly, he said, he was hitting the low 90s with his fastball. It wasn’t long before he was traveling to Pasadena every Sunday to play with ex-college players at a field near the Rose Bowl. And not long before his agent was doing what Lima’s did: calling the last-chance Long Beach Armada, looking for a job.
Maybe it’s a good thing Irabu has no big plans. He’s good with no pressure. He looked sharp Saturday night, not giving up a hit until the fifth inning during a 12-2 Armada win.
As for the man who sang the national anthem? Well, nothing seems capable of deterring Jose Lima’s hope.
“I’m not giving up, man,” he said, assuring his off-kilter pitching Friday was a temporary thing. “Trust me, I’ll be back. It’ll be Lima Time again.”