May 2010

Time of Lima

limacastilla.jpgThere are countless memories of Jose Lima being shared at this very moment and that should surprise no one.

Lima always brought people together. He did it in life. He’s doing it in death. Here’s my moment in Lima Time and I’m happy to share it. One day, I’ll share it with my son.

My first meeting with Lima was one to remember. It came in October of 2003 in Washington D.C. while waiting in the security area just outside of The White House.

It was raining.

How we all ended up there is a story in itself. President George W. Bush, a former Rangers owner and huge baseball fan, had gathered a large group of Hispanics in the U.S. to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with him at the biggest white house on the block. I covered the Rangers. I was/am Hispanic. Boom, I’m invited along with Rangers manager Buck Showalter, Rafael Palmeiro, other players and Rangers officials. First thought: “I’m outta my league.”  It’s my third year on the beat and at this point in my life, I’m old enough to have a clue about some things but not mature enough to understand what it all means. But hey, I’m going to the White House and I’m going to write about it.

 I looked lost when I arrived in the secure area near the Casa Blanca because I was. Everyone was. It’s crowded and all you hear is Spanish being spoken with a little English sprinkled in. It’s cool. We are here, but wow. I see a famous television personality/sportscaster at the security gate and she pretty much ignored me and blew off this group of young scholars when we ask her the whats, whens and hows of getting into this fiesta. What was her problem? Whatever. What happened next made up for it.

One by one, some of the biggest Latin players in baseball starting showing up. Carlos Beltran showed up with his wife. A short-haired Magglio Ordonez arrived. Rafael Palmeiro and family, Omar Minaya, Tino Martinez and family were dropped off with us poor saps in the rain.

Vladimir Guerrero made a slow walk to our area. Other players began to arrive.

Everyone smiles at each other and embraces. Listening in, it doesn’t take long to realize that everyone feels like a fish out of water just like I do. Everyone. And that feeling brought us all together.

Then the chatter among players begins:

“Wait, is that Celia Cruz’s husband? Oh my goodness, it is. That guy over there, I’m pretty sure he’s Puerto Rican salsa singer Victor Manuelle.”

“Do you think Miss Universe will be here? I think she’s Venezuelan. Venezolanas always win that contest don’t they? Oh yeah, she’ll be here.”

“Hey, is that Buck Showalter? What is he doing here?” “Oh right, he manages the Rangers. Bush and Showalter are probably friends. Claro que si.”

One player asks if A-rod is going to show up. “He’s Dominican. He’s American. He plays for the Rangers so why wouldn’t he?”

Then somebody else chimes in: “Because it’s raining. Alex don’t do rain.”

Out of nowhere, another player jumps into the conversation. The voice is booming and raspy. I would later find it to be one of the most recognizable voices in the game.

“Listen guys, if Alex was here it wouldn’t just stop raining, it would start raining upwards. He’s so good he changes the weather.”

Everybody bursts into laughter. Was he mocking Rodriguez or was he complimenting him? Nobody knew and nobody cared. Lima went on for the next 10 minutes cracking jokes about the rain, weather in Latin America and pretty much anything he could think of. The next scene was right out of prom night. Everybody starts taking photos with each other. Couples, friends, strangers. Everyone. This all takes place in the middle of the security area (basically, a parking lot) and it was hilarious. It was a pre-party before the official celebration had even started and Lima was in the middle of it. He was the life of the party, any party, but specifically, the party of life.

During the ceremony President Bush mentioned Lima by name and the crowd erupted into applause.

I took a photo with Lima and made a friend that day. Every time I would see him throughout the years that followed I would think back to that day in DC. I think he did too. The whole thing was too bizarre not to remember. What were all of us really doing there? Look how far we had all come. The White House, really? Yes, the White House. Players salaries didn’t matter that day. Millionaires stood next to underpaid teachers. Strangers shook hands like old friends and everyone nodded in silence at each other for a job well done. We were all tied together by our humble roots, language and baseball. We were all the same, just from different parts of this country and different parts of other countries. Lima was part of the glue.

Nelson Figueroa still brings it up.

Years later, I ran into Lima at Shea Stadium. He was with the Mets and he was sitting at his locker in silence. It would be his last year in the big leagues but he didn’t know that at the time. Small talk led to deep talk. He said something that I’ll never forget. He says, “Don’t ever worry about me. I’m fine. I’ll never get down, never. I am always going to be ok. Always.”

He was right. I saw Lima pitch a few more times in the Dominican Republic during the Winter Leagues and in Puerto Rico during the Caribbean Series. It seemed like he was always singing the national anthem and then getting on the mound a few minutes later. He was a fan favorite for everybody and he meant so much for the people in The DR. He was loved by so many and he loved them back. It was beautiful.

limasings.jpgThe last time I saw Lima we were in the seats near the dugout at Dodger Stadium.  We were watching batting practice and he was telling me that he almost originally signed with the Dodgers as a teen but all that changed one night at camp when he accidentally came across a Dodgers prospect doing something illegal. The prospect chased Lima with a machete and he ran all the way home. Lima never came back and he later signed with the Tigers. We laughed and laughed. He went on to tell more stories, talk about his band and relive the old days in The DR.

When I tell my son about Jose Lima, I’ll tell him about a man that enjoyed every moment of his life and he inspired others to do the same. Lima will be missed by many, including me, but he will live on in hearts across the world, especially those who believe what he believed: Don’t worry because everything is always going to be ok.



Troubles in Mexico stretch to MLB

Former Major League pitcher Ismael Valdez used to tell a story that sounded more like a joke than a warning.

As the story goes, Valdez was driving near his Ciudad Victoria home in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas when a band of criminals ran him off the road. The bandits drew guns and tied the pitcher’s hands behind his back.

Valdez’s mind raced. He was being robbed or kidnapped or worse.

Then one of the bandits recognized him. The gunman was a Dodgers fan. Valdez spent the next 15 minutes signing autographs and posing for photos with the assailants. They then apologized for the trouble they’d caused.

Valdez drove away unharmed. Eventually, he learned to laugh off the incident.

Nobody is laughing now.

Mexico is experiencing an unprecedented rise in crime, kidnapping and violence as drug cartels and Mexican authorities fight for control of the lucrative drug routes across the border into the United States.

The violence has affected millions on both sides of the border, who fear they could get caught in the crossfire. It’s hit home, too, with many Mexican Major League players no longer feeling safe in their own hometowns.

“The truth is that it’s pretty scary,” said Angels infielder Freddy Sandoval. “Living in Tijuana is a pretty tough place to be, and I have not gone back for the simple fact that the crime is so high. Everyone always says that if you don’t mess around with the bad guys that they won’t mess around with you, but it’s still scary. There are innocent victims all of the time, so for a lot of us, it’s hard to believe that saying.”

Mexico City’s Reforma newspaper reports that the country had 6,587 drug-related murders in 2009, up from 5,207 in ’08 and 2,275 in ’07. Drug-related violence has claimed the lives of more than 3,300 this year.

To combat the problem, Mexico president Felipe Calderon deployed 45,000 soldiers and 20,000 federal officers to the country’s most dangerous areas to take on the drug cartels. The U.S. State Department has extended its travel warnings to certain parts of Mexico until August.

Calderon is visiting with President Barack Obama this week amid concerns over the escalating drug war and recent immigration legislation in Arizona.

“It’s very hard here. It’s turning wild,” said Oscar Sanchez, a sports writer in Monterrey, Mexico. “Major League players have to keep a low-profile here. Soccer players are more recognizable, but the salaries baseball players have can make them targets.”

Players from Mexico have a deep history with the Major Leagues: since Baldomero Almada played for the Red Sox in 1933, 111 players from Mexico have played in the Majors. Opening Day rosters featured 12 Mexicans.

In the past, Mexican Major Leaguers tried to keep their salaries, addresses and number of children out of the press for security reasons. In the age of new media, that information is easily found and is also often reported by traditional media outlets.

“Unfortunately, the delinquency in Mexico is at levels that we’ve never seen,” said Royals closer Joakim Soria, who is from the state of Coahuila. “I think you have to have faith in God and belief that the country will get better. I’m proud to be 100-percent Mexican and I love my country, and when I get a chance to go back home, I go. You can’t live in fear, but you can’t pretend nothing is happening.”

The northern states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua and Baja California have suffered much of the drug-related violence. There have been public shootouts in Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Nogales.

In February, Astros Spanish broadcaster Francisco Romero and his family were caught in gunfire at a U.S. border checkpoint in Nogales. The Romeros were unharmed, but four were killed and 17 injured in the four-minute shootout.

“The shooters were 50 yards to our right, and about 150 yards from the actual border,” he said. “The last three years, it’s something very common in that area of Nogales. You’re aware of it, but you don’t know you’re going to be in the middle of a shootout.”

Last year, Oscar Manuel Robles Arangure, father of former Major League infielder Oscar Robles, was kidnapped for a day in Tijuana. Two years ago, Padres All-Star Adrian Gonzalez, also from Tijuana, was harassed with terrorizing phone calls from Mexico but has said the threats have subsided.

“It’s not like I’m not going to go back to Tijuana, but I think everybody knows what is happening, and it’s part of what’s going on,” Gonzalez said. “You just go about your business, and if you are not doing anything wrong, you will be fine.”

Sinaloa, once famous for baseball, is now infamous as home of the most powerful and ruthless drug-trafficking organizations in the country. The Culiacan, Mazatlan, and Los Mochis baseball teams of the Mexican Pacific League all operate in the state but have not been affected by the escalating crime, according to league president Omar Canizalez.

“Mexico has been and always will be a country full of hard-working people, good people that love sports,” Canizalez said. “Unfortunately, we border a country that many people want to get drugs into. The violence a lot of times is between the people who are involved in that type of trafficking. We don’t have to be worried or be timid doing our business. We are fine.”

Dodgers pitcher Luis Ayala, who was born in Los Mochis, understandably has a different opinion. In January, Ayala and his family were held at gunpoint for 40 minutes after burglars broke into his Culiacan home. The assailants left after they realized they hit the wrong house.

“That was the scariest night of my life. We could have died over confusion,” Ayala said. “There’s just not enough security for players. That’s the biggest problem. You don’t always feel safe.”

Major League Baseball, its security department and investigative wing are all closely monitoring the activity in Mexico and working with the U.S. State Department to make sure the clubs receive the most recent travel warnings and advisories. Security assistance is provided when requested by a player or a club.

“We are very cognizant of what is happening and we make all information available to the central office and the clubs,” said Earnell Lucas, Major League Baseball’s vice president of security and facilities management. “I like to think our clubs and players are sensitive to the issues going down in parts of their countries and they are aware of what’s occurring in the world, but we still reach out to them and they reach out to us. To the extent that baseball can, we want to be a resource for safety awareness.”

Ayala now lives in an Arizona suburb. Sandoval moved from Tijuana to Arizona last winter and is trying to get his parents to join him.

“My dad comes home from work around 4 o’clock and they just stay home,” Sandoval said. “Their lifestyle has completely changed. You have to think twice before you do normal things like go out to dinner. I call home and the first thing my dad says is ‘They killed five, six, seven, eight or 15 today.’ It’s too much.”