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Rijo didn't cry when he joined Ferreira and the six other Yankee signees from the Dominican Republic on the two-hour flight from Santo Domingo to Miami. After passing through immigration and customs, the young men boarded a commuter flight to Sarasota, where the Yankees send their most inexperienced players for extended spring training. Ferreira wished the seven Dominicans luck and put them on the plane. "This is where a scout's job ends," he said. "Now, it's up to the manager."
The players were met at the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport by Carlos Tosca, the Cuban-born manager of the Bradenton Yankees of the Gulf Coast rookie league. The team already had rented apartments for the seven. Until the Yankees moved their camp to Bradenton for the start of the season on June 20, Rijo would share a one-bedroom apartment with Pedro Medina, an infielder who'd signed in 1979 at age 15, and Joaquin Gonzalez, a catcher who'd signed the same year at 17. Each player would pay $150 a month in rent out of his $540-a-month take-home pay. After expenses for food, laundry, utilities, clothing and phone calls home, there would be little, if any, money to save.
"Especially after I send my mother some money, which I'm going to do every month," Rijo said. "I don't need much money. I'm just glad to be here."
Tosca and his pitching coach, Hoyt Wilhelm, were determined to use Rijo sparingly at first. They knew he wouldn't even turn 16 until a month before the season. "Awfully young," Wilhelm, who pitched in a major league game when he was 49, said, shaking his head.
Rijo's first appearance in a preseason game lasted two innings. Entering in the fifth inning, he struck out the first two batters and got the third to ground out to short. In the sixth, he yielded two walks and a hit to load the bases with one out. Two runs scored on an error by the shortstop, and Rijo didn't return to pitch in the seventh.
"I took him out because you don't want to throw a player his age into the fire too much," Tosca said. "If you do that, a player his age won't succeed. But I was impressed with Rijo in that game because I saw he could cope with failure. He didn't get rattled, which is a good sign. Matter of fact, that seems to be Rijo's disposition. The players all call him Smiley because he always seems to be in a good mood."
Rijo appeared in only five of the Yankees' 37 preseason games, allowing 13 hits and two earned runs in 9⅔ innings for a 2-0 record. At the end of last week his regular-season mark was 1-0, with 14 hits and three earned runs in six innings. In the process, Rijo has won an admirer in the 57-year-old Wilhelm, whom Rijo jokingly calls el hombre viejo (the old man).
"Rijo's already got an average major league fastball—and you're damn right, that's unusual for a kid his age," Wilhelm says. "You don't see many at that age who can do what this kid can do. At least, I haven't. He's got good arm action, so it's only a matter of waiting to see how well he progresses. If he can throw 85 or 86 [miles per hour] at 16, which he can, he should be able to throw 90 before too long. I'd say we should stay with him for at least three years, unless he hurts his arm. I personally think he's going to get better and better. For such a young kid, he seems to have adjusted quite well."
That's precisely what Rijo tells his mother—that he has adjusted well. He calls her every Saturday night and writes once a week. His letters are answered promptly. "When I read her letters, I think about all the good times I could be having with my friends from school," Rijo says.
Recently, his mother wrote (translated from the Spanish): "We got your letter and the $65 you sent us. Jose, I want you to be nice. Your girl friend comes over every day, asking about you. Don't think about ladies—only your game, baseball. Be careful when you buy the clothes you're going to bring back for your brothers and your sisters. Don't buy too big a size. Your friends, Geraldo, Jorgito and Reyes, all say hello. Tell Pedro Medina to send me the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that he said he was going to send me. Don't call us so often. You spend too much money doing that. Besides, my telephone has been cut off for a while. Your brother called us collect too many times from Puerta Plata, where he's playing baseball. Love, your mama."