Monday, February 25, 2002

SULLIVAN: Rijo left thirsty by 2001


Former starter on a mission to make team

By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — Jose Rijo could not be content with a cameo. Last year's comeback did not bring him closure, but motivation.

        He realized his worst day in the big leagues was better than his best day out of baseball. He set out to make a statement and ended up entranced all over again.

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        ’“A year ago I was in the Dominican, watching the game on television,” the Cincinnati Reds' most persistent pitcher said Sunday. ’“I said, ’"Damn, I wish I could be pitching again.'’Every day I come to this clubhouse is the biggest day for me. A day I get my (butt) kicked is better than any day I have in the Dominican.”

        Rijo's stated goal in returning to the major leagues last season was to rewrite his exit scene, to say farewell to his fans on his own terms rather than those imposed by injury. But when he finally made it back to the mound at Cinergy Field on Aug.17, it marked the realization of one dream and the advent of another.

        ’“My first idea was just to make it here to prove a point,” Rijo said. ’“If you want something bad enough and you have faith ’— faith in yourself and in God ’— anything is possible. In my case, especially, it was a miracle. What amazed me was the more I was throwing, the better I felt.”

        Rijo feels so good this spring, he says, that it actually worries him. After five elbow operations and a six-year layoff, he is throwing without pain, without stiffness and without the nagging fear his arm will suddenly fly off at the elbow. ’

        “Now, I'm not making a comeback,” he said. “Now, I'm competing.”

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        He is in Sarasota this spring as a non-roster pitcher, his status unclear, his contract unsigned. He pitched 17 innings for the Reds last year, compiling an eye-catching 2.12 ERA, but a 36-year-old pitcher with a scar-crossed medical history must prove himself on an annual basis.

        He is not accorded the benefit of the doubt, but the skepticism of the dubious.

        Reds pitching coach Don Gullett, a man of modulated enthusiasm, says Rijo is “in the mix”’for the Reds' 2002 staff. In a camp with 37 pitchers, this barely qualifies as faint praise. Yet Rijo is still the only pitcher on the premises who owns a major-league strikeout title, a World Series Most Valuable Player award and a slider sharp enough to slice bread.

        Rijo probably rates a longer look for services already rendered, but he is prepared to be judged on current events.

        ’“I don't need no sympathy,”’he said. ’“I'm here competing. If I'm not good enough, they can let me know. But I'm sure I'm going to make this team unless something happens, a setback. Physically and mentally, I've got a great chance.

        “I threw yesterday in the bullpen. I threw five or 10 pitches and I was loose. And I've got room to keep getting better. To what level, I don't know. I know it's not the same Rijo ’— not the same as ’'90 —’but it's better than last year.”

        Last season, as a concession to his elbow, the Reds avoided using Rijo on consecutive days. While this helped keep the pitcher strong, it was an unreasonable burden on Bob Boone's bullpen.

        If Rijo makes the club this year, he will likely have to crack the starting rotation or prove he can pitch in relief with regularity. It is one thing to get a shot late in a lost season; quite another to make the club out of spring training. It is the difference between consideration and conviction.

        ’“Everybody understands the risks of the situation that he's involved,” said Tom Reich, Rijo's agent. ’

        “Nobody is unaware of the reality of that. But Rijo's will knows no boundaries. In that regard, he reminds me of (hockey cancer survivor) Mario Lemieux.”

        Rijo reminds himself of his former self only sporadically. On the floor of his locker, he keeps a stack of his old baseball cards, and he periodically pores over them to stir memories of his peak performances. He flipped one over Sunday to find a reference to his dominance in the Florida State League in 1983. That was half a life and many operations ago.

        ’“When I started out last year, I went to (former Reds coach) Ron Oester and I asked, "What do you see?'” Rijo recalled. ’“He said, ’"Jose do you want my honest opinion? I don't think you're good enough. I think you need to get better.'

        ’“When I made my comeback, he apologized. He said, ’"One thing I didn't take into consideration is the way you are when you're competing.'”

        Jose Rijo says he does not believe in tomorrow. He lives in the moment. He lives for those moments when he's on the mound. ’“Not even power is better than that,” he said. ’ “Not even being king or being president.”

        He got a taste of it again last year, and it has only served to stimulate his appetite.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.
       

       



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