Resurging Rijo

Veteran pitcher Jose Rijo overcame elbow surgery, arthritis, and a five-year layoff to return to the Cincinnati Reds’ lineup.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 12.5, July/August 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1205/rijo.htm

Baseball pitchers returning to competition after undergoing reconstructive surgery have become a common sight in the last decade or so. But until Jose Rijo climbed on the mound last season, no one had ever seen a pitcher successfully overcome five surgeries and a five-year absence from the major leagues.

A one-time stalwart of the Cincinnati Reds rotation, Rijo racked up 92 wins between 1988 and 1995. In 1990, Rijo was named the World Series MVP after allowing only one earned run in 15-1/3 innings while winning two games to lead the Reds to a surprising four-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics.

After leading the National League with 227 strikeouts in 1993 and making the All-Star team in 1994, Rijo was hoping for an even better season in 1995. But that didn’t happen.

On July 18, 1995, Rijo felt a twinge in his elbow when he was pitching against the San Diego Padres. After giving up a hit to Padres hurler Joey Hamilton, he summoned the athletic training staff to the mound before walking off the field holding his arm.

Rijo was diagnosed with a calcified ligament and needed reconstructive elbow surgery. He underwent a “Tommy John” operation on Aug. 22, 1995, performed by orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, MD, of the Alabama Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham. However, Rijo returned too soon after the operation and reinjured the elbow. He subsequently had four more operations in an attempt to repair the damage, but was essentially unable to pitch at the major-league level.

Rijo, 37, returned to his native Dominican Republic. A return to the mound seemed unlikely—at one point, Rijo went two years without throwing a pitch. Yet he still hadn’t officially retired. When he started to run a Dominican baseball academy for the Reds, Rijo began casually throwing again, and was surprised by how good his arm felt. He soon got the desire to play again.

No one ever thought Rijo could return to the big leagues after five years out of baseball. He had even received a vote for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility during the 2001 season. But in 2001, the Reds decided to offer him a minor league contract, and he pitched well enough for Triple A Louisville that he earned a call up to the majors in August.

“I never thought it would take this long,” Rijo told the Associated Press after being promoted to the Reds. “Nobody has any idea how hard it was to be here today.” For his determination to return to the pitching mound, Rijo has been named Training & Conditioning’s Professional Comeback Athlete for 2002. Also named are James Andrews, MD, of Alabama Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center; Reds Medical Director Timothy Kremchek, MD, of Beacon Orthopaedics in Cincinnati; Reds Athletic Trainers Greg Lynn, ATC, and Mark Mann, ATC; and Reds Physical Therapist Lonnie Soloff, MPT, ATC.

After the operation, Kremchek explained the state of Rijo’s elbow in The Sporting News: “Normally, the ligament keeps the elbow stable. He’s got a ligament, but we’re just not sure how functional it is. From years of throwing, he has developed arthritis and bone spurs. It’s the arthritic damage that has stabilized his elbow. When the ligament doesn’t work well, it’s hard to pitch. When you get arthritis, the elbow gets stiff, which makes it more stable, which allows him to pitch.”

On Aug. 17, 2001, Rijo made his first appearance in the major leagues in more than five years. He threw two scoreless innings of relief against the Milwaukee Brewers, allowing two hits and two walks before pitching out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth inning by striking out two batters. “I cannot describe with words how I feel right now. It’s beyond anything in my life that I ever accomplished,” he told the Associated Press after the game. Rijo appeared in 12 more games during the 2001 season, finishing with a 2.12 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 17 innings. He showed enough potential that the Reds signed him to another minor league contract and invited him to spring training this year.

Rijo was no lock to make the Reds’ 2002 roster, but he impressed the team with his throwing, retiring the first 18 batters he faced in spring training. He noted that he was pitching without pain, stiffness, and most importantly, fear for the first time since his initial injury. “My first idea was just to make it here to prove a point,” Rijo told the Cincinnati Inquirer in February. “If you want something bad enough and you have faith—faith in God and faith in yourself—anything is possible. In my case, it was a miracle. What amazed me was the more I was throwing, the better I felt.”

But he still wasn’t sure if that would be good enough. When Reds manager Bob Boone came over to talk to him during a spring training game, he thought he was going to get cut. “He called me over, and I was the most nervous I’ve been in my whole career,” Rijo told the Associated Press on March 22. But Boone had good news—Rijo had indeed made the team’s opening-day 40-man roster.

On April 22, Rijo made his first start in nearly seven years, pitching against the Chicago Cubs. He recorded the victory, allowing just one run on three hits. Asked by The Associated Press if he ever thought he’d start in the major leagues again, Rijo said, “No, no, no. If I said yes, I’d be lying to you. It would take a great healing process and a great strong mind. They all came together. It’s a miracle.”

No longer the power pitcher he was in the late 1980s and early 1990s—his fastball now ranges between 82 and 85 mph—Rijo works within his current limits. “They want to see the old Jose Rijo, and they’re never going to see that,” he told the Cincinnati Post. “But they’re going to see good numbers.”

The Reds organization hopes that Rijo’s approach to pitching will preserve his arm, but there’s no guarantee. “We have absolutely no idea how long it will last,” Kremchek told The Sporting News. “From what he’s shown us, there are indications that he can pitch a few years without any problem. However, you never know. You never know how the pain will limit him. And if the arthritis causes him to have less motion with his elbow, he will become less effective.”

“We really don’t know if his next pitch is his last pitch, if the end is a month away or six months away,” Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden said on CNNSI.com. “However long it lasts, we just want to appreciate the moment.”