Reds rookie righthander Chris Reitsma is only 23, but if age were measured in mishaps, he would be eligible for Social Security. Reitsma has broken a collarbone twice, his right arm three times, his right leg twice, two fingers and a toe. He watched from a pitcher's mound as a friend died in leftfield. He has played for three organizations in the past 14 months. Plus, he nearly missed his first major league start because of food poisoning. Still, Calamity Chris can't believe his good luck. "I consider it a miracle," says Reitsma, who through Sunday was 2-1 with a 1.03 ERA in four starts, "that I can even throw."
On June 4, 1997, a year to the day after the Red Sox drafted him out of high school in Calgary, Reitsma heard his right elbow crack as he delivered a pitch for the Class A Michigan Battle Cats. A fractured elbow is usually fatal to a pitcher's career, but after surgery Reitsma returned the next April for a stint with the Class A Sarasota Red Sox. He pitched 12? innings in eight starts, hoping to build enough arm strength to mount a full comeback the following spring. Even that workload was too much: He left an outing in late May with a stress fracture in his elbow. "I went from May to December without picking up a ball," he says. "I was thinking about not making another comeback."
He did return, however, and made it through a full season at Sarasota that was shaky (4-10, 5.61) but injury-free. The Devil Rays nonetheless were impressed enough to pluck Reitsma in the December 1999 Rule V draft; he was one of Tampa Bay's final cuts the next spring and, under Rule V, was shipped back to the Red Sox. He went a combined 10-6 at two minor league levels last season and then was dealt to the Reds in August when Boston acquired slugger Dante Bichette. Reitsma won a starter's job this spring, dazzling the Reds with his straight changeup and curveball and with command and poise beyond his years. His fastball tops out at around 91 mph, five mph slower than it was before the elbow injuries. "After the second break I really worked on a changeup," Reitsma says. "Those injuries may have helped me become a better pitcher."
Reitsma was already an old hand at recuperation. A rough-and-tumble boyhood in Calgary—"In childhood pictures I'm always in a cast," he says—produced that litany of fractures. (He first broke his right arm when a well-fed teammate sat on it during high school football practice.) Reitsma also endured tragedy. When he was 16, he was pitching in a tournament in Ancaster, Ont., when lightning struck the field. Every player was knocked down except Reitsma, who didn't feel the jolt because he was standing on the pitching rubber. Reitsma's leftfielder, a close friend, was killed. "That showed me God can take us at any time," he says. "That had a lot to do with building character."
That character was tested before his first big league start, on April 4. The evening before, Reitsma ate a bad chicken sandwich and spent that night and most of the next day suffering from food poisoning. "My wife looked at me and said, 'You can't pitch tonight,' " he says.
Reitsma took IV fluids after he arrived at Cinergy Field and then pitched six innings against the Pirates, allowing two runs on three hits, while striking out four and walking one. The performance shouldn't have surprised anyone. He'd been through worse.