Rip Van Rijo Five operations and six years after his last start, Jose Rijo is a Red again

September 09, 2001

The most coveted article of clothing at Cinergy Field isn't the
three-piece Reds bib and bootie set ($20) or the Dmitri Young
microfiber pullover ($58). Even the Sean Casey authentic game
jersey ($150) is run-of-the-mill compared to the custom-made
white T-shirts emblazoned with the image of righthander Jose
Rijo, under the words THE COMEBACK KID. Grinning broadly from his
corner locker, Rijo passes out the shirts in the clubhouse with
the pride of a new father passing out cigars, such is his joy at
pitching again in the major leagues after a six-year absence.

Don't let the cotton-polyester blend or the low price ($0) fool
you, however. Rijowear comes at an immense cost. Since leaving a
July 18, 1995, game at San Diego in tears because of pain in his
right elbow, Rijo, the '90 World Series MVP, has undergone five
operations on his elbow, including Tommy John surgery in '95. He
endured failed comeback bids in three consecutive seasons,
beginning in '96, and then retired to his native San Cristobal,
Dominican Republic, resigned to living out his baseball career
vicariously by running a baseball academy. "I thought I was
finished," says Rijo, 36, pointing out the scars that crisscross
his right elbow.

Rijo's first return, in 1996, was cut short when he needed
surgery in April to remove a bone growth. A ruptured tendon
necessitated another operation the following November. Rijo's
toughest setback, though, came in the summer of '97, when he felt
a pop in his elbow while throwing, and arthroscopic surgery to
repair a detached ligament followed. "That was the bottom," he
says. "I felt it snap, and I was sure my career was over. I was
so frustrated, not just about having done all the rehab for
nothing, but about not being able to do the thing I love most."
During the ensuing four years Rijo kept active, personally
financing and operating a $1.5 million, seven-field baseball
academy called Loma del Sueno (Hill of Dreams) that houses 600
players between the ages of 15 and 18, just outside San
Cristobal.

While working out at the academy, he began to get the bug to
pitch again. After signing a minor league contract with the Reds
in late July, Rijo had a 4.06 ERA in eight minor league
appearances before returning to the majors on Aug. 17 against the
Brewers. Rijo pitched the eighth and ninth innings of a 5-1
Cincinnati loss, striking out two with the bases loaded in the
ninth. "It was the greatest moment I ever had," says Rijo, who
became the first player since Minnie Minoso in '80 to appear in a
big league game after receiving a Hall of Fame vote. "It was
indescribable."

Rijo's 3.38 ERA in five appearances through Sunday is
respectable, but he had allowed 12 hits and walked four in eight
innings. Because he has been hanging his slider, Rijo has had to
rely on a less effective forkball as his out pitch. "Still, his
stuff looks good," says manager Bob Boone. "He's consistently in
the low 90s with his fastball, and he's got location. As I get
more confident in him, I'll use him in tougher situations."

Rijo will pitch for Licey in the Dominican winter league, with
the goal of starting for Cincinnati next spring. "How his elbow
is going to respond, I don't know," says general manager Jim
Bowden, "but we didn't think his elbow would allow him to do
this, so we're not betting against his staying healthy."

Rijo, who was 78-47 with a 2.58 ERA during his prime, from '88 to
'93, is supremely confident, and that confidence is there for all
to see on his T-shirts. "Turn it around," he crowed to Ken
Griffey Jr., after tossing him one. Griffey held up the shirt and
flipped it over, whereupon Rijo read his credo in a jubilant
singsong, "That's right, papi: Believe it!"

COLOR PHOTO: THOMAS E. WITTE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)