The most coveted article of clothing at Cinergy Field isn't the three-piece Reds bib and bootie set ($20) or the Dmitri Young micro fiber pullover ($58). Even the Sean Casey authentic game jersey ($150) is run-of-the-mill compared to the custom-made white T-shirts emblazoned with the image of righthander Jose Rijo, under the words THE COMEBACK KID. Grinning broadly from his corner locker, Rijo passes out the shirts in the clubhouse with the pride of a new father passing out cigars, such is his joy at pitching again in the major leagues after a six-year absence.
Don't let the cotton-polyester blend or the low price ($0) fool you, however. Rijowear comes at an immense cost. Since leaving a July 18, 1995, game at San Diego in tears because of pain in his right elbow, Rijo, the '90 World Series MVP, has undergone five operations on his elbow, including Tommy John surgery in '95. He endured failed comeback bids in three consecutive seasons, beginning in '96, and then retired to his native San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, resigned to living out his baseball career vicariously by running a baseball academy. "I thought I was finished," says Rijo, 36, pointing out the scars that crisscross his right elbow.
Rijo's first return, in 1996, was cut short when he needed surgery in April to remove a bone growth. A ruptured tendon necessitated another operation the following November. Rijo's toughest setback, though, came in the summer of '97, when he felt a pop in his elbow while throwing, and arthroscopic surgery to repair a detached ligament followed. "That was the bottom," he says. "I felt it snap, and I was sure my career was over. I was so frustrated, not just about having done all the rehab for nothing, but about not being able to do the thing I love most." During the ensuing four years Rijo kept active, personally financing and operating a $1.5 million, seven-field baseball academy called Loma del Sue�o (Hill of Dreams) that houses 600 players between the ages of 15 and 18, just outside San Cristobal.
While working out at the academy, he began to get the bug to pitch again. After signing a minor league contract with the Reds in late July, Rijo had a 4.06 ERA in eight minor league appearances before returning to the majors on Aug. 17 against the Brewers. Rijo pitched the eighth and ninth innings of a 5-1 Cincinnati loss, striking out two with the bases loaded in the ninth. "It was the greatest moment I ever had," says Rijo, who became the first player since Minnie Minoso in '80 to appear in a big league game after receiving a Hall of Fame vote. "It was indescribable."
Rijo's 3-38 ERA in five appearances through Sunday is respectable, but he had allowed 12 hits and walked four in eight innings. Because he has been hanging his slider, Rijo has had to rely on a less effective forkball as his out pitch. "Still, his stuff looks good," says manager Bob Boone. "He's consistently in the low 90s with his fastball, and he's got location. As I get more confident in him, I'll use him in tougher situations."
Rijo will pitch for Licey in the Dominican winter league, with the goal of stalling for Cincinnati next spring. "How his elbow is going to respond, I don't know," says general manager Jim Bowden, "but we didn't think his elbow would allow him to do this, so we're not betting against his staying healthy."
Rijo, who was 78-47 with a 2.58 ERA during his prime, from '88 to '93, is supremely confident, and that confidence is there for all to see on his T-shirts. "Turn it around," he crowed to Ken Griffey Jr., after tossing him one. Griffey held up the shirt and flipped it over, whereupon Rijo read his credo in a jubilant singsong, "That's right, papi: Believe it!"