Rijo signs contract as comeback begins

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 5, 2001

The Associated Press

Thursday, July 05, 2001

CINCINNATI – Jose Rijo was smiling as he sat in the Cincinnati Reds’ clubhouse Monday afternoon with ice on his right elbow and sweat on his face.

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For the first time in three years, he was a professional baseball player.

The 36-year-old pitcher who hasn’t appeared in a game since 1995 signed a minor league contract on Monday. He’ll start for Class A Dayton on Wednesday, the first step in what he hopes will be a comeback from four major elbow operations.

”I’ll be more nervous than excited,” Rijo said. ”I don’t know what to expect. All I know is I just want to do this, and I’m trying so hard. Whatever consequence it brings, I’m ready to go with.”

Rjio was the MVP of the Reds’ 1990 World Series sweep of Oakland. He had the first major operation on his right elbow in 1995, and hurt it again the next spring when he tried to come back too fast.

His last attempt at a comeback was in 1998, when he came to spring training on a minor league contract but developed a sore elbow. He then put his career on hold while he built a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, trying to give something back to his country.

He threw batting practice last Thursday and impressed the front office enough to get one last chance at a comeback. Rijo was already under contract as a scout – the Reds have an arrangement with his baseball academy – so they rewrote the deal to make him a player.

The Reds sent the contract to the commissioner’s office to make sure it complied with baseball’s rules, delaying his signing.

”We were changing it to make him a player, so we had to make sure it was all aboveboard,” assistant general manager Doc Rodgers said.

Rijo has been looking forward to this moment for years.

”The only thing that’s going to change is I never dreamed of being in Dayton,” he said. ”All the time, it was in Cincinnati. But this is a step to get there.”

If he does well, he will be promoted to Triple-A to face tougher hitters and get an idea whether he could pitch in the majors this season. If he fails, he’ll retire.

Rijo has been touched by the reaction to his comeback. He went into a sporting goods store downtown to buy 20 pitcher’s rubbers and 10 home plates for his baseball academy, and got a lot of encouragement from the workers and patrons.

”I was shopping and heard beautiful comments,” Rijo said. ”I do miss all that. I’ve heard so many good comments and so many people telling me they’re praying for me. You can’t not try hard when you hear comments like that.”

Over the weekend, Rijo also spent some time with the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, who’s also from the Dominican.

”We talked about life in general – the position we’re in, where we came from, what we can do for our country and how lucky we are to be where we are,” Rijo said.

Asked if he told Sosa he wants to face him again, Rijo laughed.

”I told him I don’t want to face him,” Rijo said. ”I want my confidence right where it is. I don’t want to be in his record book.”

GRIFFEY SR. GETS NEEDLED: Ken Griffey Sr. got acupuncture treatment Tuesday to help relieve the pain in his neck, shoulder and back that have put him in rehabilitation.

Griffey, the Reds’ batting coach, was given a leave of absence on June 18 to get treatment. He has two fused bones in his neck and a degenerative disc in his back.

”I’m taking my time with it,” he said Monday. ”I’m supposed to see a doctor tomorrow for acupuncture. I’ve been getting rubdowns and basically trying to rest it.”

Griffey, 50, said longs flights would bother his back so much that he had to take painkillers.

”That was the part that I worried more about,” he said.

His fill-in, Double-A batting coach Mike Greenwell, broke his right hand Sunday when he was hit by a ball while throwing batting practice. Greenwell has the right wrist and forearm in a red cast.

”I’m looking at coming back right after the All-Star break,” Griffey said. ”The way things are going … The hitting coach got his wrist broke, so I don’t know. I might have to come back to throw BP.”

REYES PITCHING AGAIN: Left-handed reliever Dennys Reyes threw batting practice again Monday and was activated off the disabled list.

Reyes was optioned to Triple-A Louisville, where he’ll start Friday. He had been on the disabled list since May 30 with a tender elbow and forearm.

Manager Bob Boone liked the way Reyes threw hard without a hint of problem during his 39-pitch session.

”That’s the first time he let it go,” Boone said.

Pitching coach Don Gullett talked to Reyes halfway through the session and told him not to hold back.

”For the first 15 pitches, I was kind of like afraid,” Reyes said.

Reyes will start so at Louisville he can get more innings and build up his arm. Boone is toying with the idea of putting him in the Reds’ rotation when he’s ready to return to the majors.

Reyes, who auditioned for the rotation during spring training but wound up in the bullpen, likes the idea.

”I hope he lets me start,” Reyes said. ”I’m pretty happy about it.”