Saturday, August 18, 2001

Rijo tells sweet tale with effort

        Jose Rijo was tongue-tied in two languages. There wasn't a phrase that could fully capture his feelings or completely convey his joy.

        Not in English. Not in Spanish. Not on this enchanted evening.

        “Who expected me to pitch?” the Cincinnati Reds' resurrected right-hander asked Friday night. “Who expected me to be here? Not even myself, to be honest.”

        Yet there he was, undeterred, undeniable and still undented. Six years since his last major-league appearance — after five elbow surgeries and his first Hall of Fame vote — Rijo returned to the pitching rubber at Cinergy Field and threw two scoreless innings against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Jose Rijo points to the crowd.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        If this wasn't a miracle, it will have to do. The Reds lost, 5-1, but the score was incidental to the story.

        “This day is the biggest day in my life and my whole career,” Rijo said. “It's bigger than the World Series. I knew against Oakland (in 1990) that I had a chance ... I didn't know I had this in me.”

        He was something less than his old self and something more than anyone could have anticipated. Rijo's fastball reached 92 miles per hour on the radar guns and he twice reached back into the mists of time to strike out Richie Sexson and Jose Hernandez with the bases loaded.

Stuff of legend

        Maybe it means nothing. Maybe Friday was all about adrenaline and a harsher reality awaits. Maybe two outstanding outfield catches made Rijo's stuff look better in the box score than it did from the batter's box. But for a few marvelous moments, Cinergy Field's tortured tenants and suffering spectators were witness to a scene last staged in Bernard Malamud's novel, The Natural .

        Ballplayers don't return from oblivion in real life. Not with bona fide fastballs and breakdancing breaking stuff. Some retired players toy with the concept of a comeback, but they're seldom serious.

        “They watch it on TV and the game seems to be moving so slow that it gives them the feeling that they can do it again,” Reds coach Bill Doran said. “But you don't get the speed of the game from TV or from the stands or even from the dugout.”

        Jose Rijo held on to his dream when everything but his will asked “Why?”

Eruption of emotion

        Rijo estimated that 200 of his closest friends had made the trip to Cincinnati to see his comeback. The Reds reported 4,746 of the 29,214 in attendance were “walk-ups” — a season high. When the scoreboard revealed that Rijo was warming up in the bullpen, at 9:31 p.m., the applause clearly eclipsed what Ken Griffey Jr. had received in stepping into the batter's box a few moments before.

        That ovation was for old times' sake. All the others Rijo received were earned.

        When he finally made his way to the mound to start the eighth inning, Rijo could barely contain his excitement or control his pitches. Three of the first four warmup throws to Jason LaRue forced the catcher to stand.

        “I didn't know what to expect,” Rijo said, “or what to do.”

        He said a prayer and started to pitch. He worked in and out of trouble with steadily improving stuff. He was “surprised,” he said, by the quality of his pitches.

        “It's not close to what I had before,” he said, “but it's better than what people expected of me.”

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