Sunday, April 28, 2002

Rijo's return 'a miracle,'
but so is rest of his story




By John Erardi jerardi@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In the history of baseball, there have been greater comebacks from life-threatening illness, but no greater comebacks from arm injuries than what Jose Rijo has accomplished. There has never been anything like this: a top-line pitcher going seven years between starts and victories, as Rijo had done between 1995 and 2002, when he beat the Cubs last week in Chicago.

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Jose Rijo had the Giants eating out of his hand Saturday.
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        “You know that movie, The Rookie?' asked Rijo. “I haven't seen it yet, but I'm pretty sure it's not even close to what has happened to me. To be out of the game is one thing. But to have three Tommy John surgeries, and two more arm surgeries, and now to be pitching again seven years later? Nobody would make a movie out of that, because nobody would believe it.”

        The last time, the third Tommy John surgery, there was virtually no ligament left to attach to the two bones to keep Jose Rijo's throwing arm together.

        So Dr. James Andrews winged it.

        “He had to find a strand of ligament, a strand of tendon, anything he could find in there that would stay together and heal,” Reds medical director Tim Kremchek said.

        Andrews' improvisation, mother nature and — many believe — God, took care of the rest.

        Reds general manager Jim Bowden is the man who kept giving Rijo the chance to come back. But Bowden is also a man with a tendency toward hyperbole when it comes to projecting young players' numbers. So, to explain Rijo's comeback, Bowden has to go beyond The Baseball Encyclopedia.

        But you know what? On this one, the grandest projection of all, Bowden just may be right.

        “It's biblical,” Bowden says. “If the good Lord's going to bless someone, give someone a miracle, he's going to pick someone like Jose Rijo. Jose represents the word perseverance better than any baseball player, probably ever in the game.”

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Rijo anknowledges a standing ovation as he walks to the dugout before the game with pitching coach Don Gullett and catcher Corky Miller.
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        How's that again?

        “I don't think in the history of the game anyone has medically found a pitcher that has thrown without a ligament in his elbow at the major-league level,” Bowden said.

        Say what? Kremchek, an orthopedic surgeon, explains.

        “We're not really sure how much of Jose's ligament is there,” Kremchek said. “... But he has enough arthritis in his elbow, scar tissue, changes, bone spurs that have stabilized his elbow, plus his knowledge of pitching, to make him effective. We kept telling him, "Jose, you can't pitch without a ligament.' Well, he's proven everybody wrong.”

        Only time, good fortune and unfathomable grit could make that happen.

        “Arthritis that forms in any joint will limit your motion and make it more stable,” Kremchek said. “Jose had waited around long enough to where his elbow was no longer unstable when he threw. His elbow is so stable you can't budge it. It's almost too stable. He was so smart he was able to change his mechanics. He's only 36. His regular body hadn't pitched in six years, so his regular body is 30. But his elbow? His elbow is 86.”

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Rijo pitches to Barry Bonds.
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        So, how much of a medical marvel is Rijo?

        “We (orthopedists) have always thought if you tear your ligament inside of your elbow, and it doesn't work right, that you won't be able to throw the ball anywhere close to over 80 miles an hour,” Kremchek said. “To have three Tommy Johns, and two other (major) surgeries, then to come back and pitch in the major leagues? He's a medical miracle.”

        Rijo threw a pitch to Barry Bonds on Saturday that was 87 miles an hour. He also threw an 88 mph pitch later in his six-inning stint. Last year, he cranked it up to the low 90's several times.

        Rijo is doing it with stabilization and work ethic. His shoulder is powerful.

        “And his forearm muscles are so strong that they are helping support the inside part of his elbow,” Kremchek said.

        Bowden believes Rijo could pitch for a while yet.

        “If he stays healthy, there's no telling what he could do this year and next year,” Bowden said. “The only thing we don't know is: Will the next pitch be the last? Will the next game be the last? The next month? Next year? Or will we have a miracle that lasts for a few years? None of us knows. But we'd better enjoy it while we have the time.”

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        Luis Pineda is one of Jose Rijo's many prodigies. And, yet, because he hails from the same hometown in the Dominican, San Cristobal, he is a special one. He pauses to find the right words.

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Rijo puts his arm around Nathan Huey, 10, during the National Anthem.
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        “The other Dominican players, who have made it to the major leagues and achieved much here, are not like him,” Pineda said. “I know. I can say this. I can speak the truth, because I am a Dominican. They forget their roots. They forget where they come from. But not Jose. He has not forgotten. He gives back. He never forgets.”

        Pineda was one of those numerous Dominicans who, as a youth, was given a piece or two of baseball equipment by the man he calls “Papa Grande,” that is “Big Daddy.” He was given a pair of baseball shoes (the right shoe bearing the toe plate fashioned for right-handed pitchers) and a helmet, both of them too big. But in San Cristobal, it is easy to find somebody else who was given something else by Rijo, and so you trade Rijo's pieces for pieces that fit.

        Pineda grew into the person who can physically fill those big shoes. And he is growing into the pitcher who can fill the shoes of Rijo on the mound.

        “Jose has helped me with many things, but the thing he saw with my (pitching) delivery was that I was standing up too straight,” Pineda said. “He showed me how to bend my knees and get a little lower as I move through my delivery. I am able to push off my back leg and get more speed on my pitches. It added several miles to my fastball.”

        The base of the push-off for the right-handed pitcher is the right foot.

        The one that has the toe plate on the right shoe.

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        Rijo built, out of his own pocket, the baseball academy in the Dominican that Bowden estimates cost the Reds pitcher between $3 million and $4 million.

        Although many people give the credit to Bowden for believing in Rijo and giving him the chance to come back, the Reds GM marvels most at Rijo's loyalty.

        “His passion for creating the academy, and wanting us to improve our signing and developing of Dominican players, is the equal of the passion he has for pitching,” Bowden said. “He had many opportunities to go to other organizations.”

        When Rijo was hurt and could not pitch and the Reds were still paying his salary from a big contract he had signed, Rijo wasn't off somewhere working on his comeback during the week and heading for the beach on the weekend. He was working on getting the academy built, then operating it and teaching there, and all the while scouting for the Reds and working with their pitchers.

        Bowden said Rijo will have a job as long as Bowden is with the Reds.

        It is no small statement.

        “I want to be around, even when I'm done pitching,” Rijo said. “Now it's easier to be of help to young pitchers, because not only can I tell them, I can go out and show them. But there are a lot of people to have an effect on in the Dominican. That's my main focus. That's where they need me the most. But I can do both. I can be here at times and there at times.”

        Fellow Reds pitcher Danny Graves sees Rijo's presence and applauds.

        “He's great,” Graves said. “He laughs, he jokes, he keeps everybody upbeat. He helps a lot of the young Latin guys, who haven't had a taste of the big leagues. They can relate to him a lot easier than they can relate to us.”

        Even if he hadn't come back from the five arm surgeries, Rijo would have been a great asset. But in making the comeback , he has become, in many ways, bigger than life.

        “In the Dominican, he is a god,” Pineda said. “... People there know what he has done for us. Young players flock to the academy.”

        While Rijo was becoming the Pied Piper to young Dominican baseball players, his pitching arm was undergoing its own transformation.

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        Rijo knows a ton about pitching, all of which he puts to good use.

        But he feels he knows entirely too much about elbow surgery, not enough of which he can use.

        For example, he has witnessed first hand the same Tommy John surgery that was performed on him, being performed on somebody else.

        “I almost got sick to my stomach,” Rijo said. “It was after my third surgery. Dr. Andrews wanted me to see exactly what Tommy John surgery was. But it was more than I could take.”

        During those five years' worth of surgeries by Andrews, Rijo lived in a hotel room in Birmingham, Ala., where Andrews practices.

        Twice daily, Rijo went for therapy and rehabilitation. He was in Alabama so long that his rich accent started to develop a bit of a twang. He couldn't find a good Latino restaurant or a night club with good salsa music.

        “I did more thinking in those five years than I did in the 30 years before that,” he said.

        He also once saw, when he went to a Birmingham hotel room in search of Dr. Andrews and a physical therapist, what he thought was one thing but — upon closer inspection — turned out to be something else: the right arm of a cadaver.

        Rijo had stumbled into a training room for visiting orthopedic surgeons.

        An empty room, Rijo, and an arm.

        Rijo knew what he was looking at: a dead right-hander upon whom was performed Tommy John surgery.

        “I didn't hang around,” Rijo said. “That was enough for me.”

        Rijo had started so early in pro ball (age 16), that by the time he was “finished” the first time (30), he had a thorough grasp of pitching, yet was young enough to withstand a six-year absence and be able to come back at age 36.

        And medical technology advanced considerably in the years between Rijo's first surgery and his third one.

        “The first time I went to see Dr. Andrews, he had done about 100 surgeries like mine,” Rijo said. “Now, he's done more than a thousand. I'm so old, I played with the guy who had the first Tommy John surgery — Tommy John himself. I pitched with him on the Yankees in 1984.”

        Rijo derives great joy from the way he is being received.

        “People come up to me and say, “I know God is involved with this. I know God picked you to work through because of how hard you work and because of your infectious enthusiasm for life and for people.' That makes me feel good.”

       



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