By Joe Kay
The Associated Press
SARASOTA, Fla. - Jose Rijo slid on a gray Louisville Slugger T-shirt, then twisted his right arm and inspected the scarred elbow that has brought him joy, fame and pain.
Black surgical threads poked from healed-over incisions, stubble that signified his latest trouble.
For the sixth time since 1995, the Cincinnati Reds' indefatigable pitcher is making a comeback from surgery, regardless of whether anyone thinks he can.
"Hey, Jose!" first base coach Jose Cardenal called out playfully as he passed by. "You're quitting? Why?"
"Because I'm too old like you," said Rijo, 37. "I'm going to be a first base coach."
No, he's not. Six elbow operations - two of them to rebuild a torn ligament - and five years away from the game couldn't get Rijo to give up the only thing he loves doing.
What's one more comeback?
"I feel awesome," he said Monday, before getting the stitches taken out and playing catch for the first time since his March 11 operation to remove a bone chip. "I can brush my teeth in the morning and open a door without having any pain."
Pain has been his companion since 1995, when he had the first operation to reconstruct the elbow. He came back too fast, tore it up again and needed a second "Tommy John" operation.
He's had six operations in all, slowing his comeback but never quite extinguishing it. Rijo, the Reds' 1990 World Series MVP, simply refuses to give up.
"It's the game," he said, saying the words slowly for emphasis. "I don't know what else to do. I've been pitching my whole life. Why start something else? Having a setback is better than anything else I could do. Whatever else is out there for me to do, I don't know what it is."
He could retire and run his baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, where he got the urge to try one last comeback in 2001. He made it back to the big leagues for 13 games late in the season, getting by on guile and an average fastball.
Rijo came to camp on a minor league contract last year, made the team in spring training and went 5-4 with a 5.14 ERA in nine starts and 22 relief appearances. He had the honor of starting the final game at Cinergy Field, a 4-3 loss to Philadelphia.
All it did was whet his desire to keep going.
He worked out over the winter, got his fastball above 90 mph and showed up in training camp with high hopes and another ache in the elbow. After only five innings, he realized he needed another operation to remove the bone chip.
It was another crossroads. He had no desire to go through more rehabilitation, but wasn't ready to give in.
"My fastball was above 90 mph, which was a surprise," he said. "My slider was sharp, my control was excellent. That's the reason I had the surgery. If I was throwing the ball like I was last year or the year before, I never would have had the surgery. I would have gone home."
All he wants now is return home with the big-league club and open Great American Ball Park.
Rijo made 60 throws on Monday and felt no pain. Afterward, he had a cigar snugly nestled in the corner of his wide smile.
"It was too easy," he said. "I'm going to call Dr. (James) Andrews and accelerate it, see if I can throw every day and harder and longer."
Rijo will most likely open the season on the disabled list, but wants to accompany the team north to be part of the opener in the new ballpark. The Reds might oblige - he provided some great moments at the old place, after all.
"That's the whole goal," Rijo said. "I don't want to stay here. I want to see the new ballpark. If there's no pain in the elbow, I'll be ready to go soon - hopefully, less than two weeks, if everything goes according to my plan."
Rijo's grueling daily workouts have kept his legs sculpted and strong. As long as the elbow cooperates, Rijo plans to be pitching for the Reds in mid-April.
Retirement? He hasn't given it a thought.
"As much as I work everyday, my body feels great, maybe better than a 25-year-old's," he said. "It tells me that it's not time to quit yet."
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NATIONAL SPORTS HEADLINES
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TENNIS: Venus Williams upset by Shaughnessy
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