It’s been going on as long as men have earned a living playing with bats and balls. The veteran player takes the rookie under his wing, shows him around, talks to him about opposing hitters, maybe even fills his cleats with shaving cream. It’s all designed to make the kid feel at home . . . and help him keep the other team from getting there.
So, when Oakland A’s Manager Jackie Moore says one of his veterans has been a “big influence” on pitcher Jose Rijo, 20, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Until you find out that this veteran is one very controversial Domincan named Joaquin Andujar. Then you start wondering if Moore means the kind of influence your mother talked about when she didn’t approve of your friends.
“Don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” Moore said, smiling. “Joaquin has been a great influence on Jose. They’re very close and Joaquin spends a lot of time with him.
“He’s taught him about work habits, about establishing strike one from the beginning. And he’s taught him about dealing with the press. After all, who’s had more experience?”
Rijo threw strikes--in the beginning, middle and end--last Saturday to set a club record by striking out 16 Seattle Mariners. A lot of very fast strikes.
“That’s quite a feat when you think about all the good pitchers on the Oakland A’s over the years,” Moore said. “But, then, the way he’s been throwing, it wasn’t really that big of a surprise.”
Angels Manager Gene Mauch, who thinks Rijo’s mid-90-m.p.h. fastball may be the best in the league, wasn’t surprised, either.
“He’s got the stuff to be something in this league,” Mauch said. “Something special.”
Saturday was a special day for Rijo, but Moore sounded like he was having most of the fun.
“I can’t recall ever seeing that many hitters go down without even getting a decent swing,” he said, taking mock feeble cuts through the air. “It’s exciting to watch a pitcher have a day like that . . . especially when he keeps coming back to your dugout.”
Rijo, a young man of few words, admitted to having a pretty good time, too.
“Yes, it was very exciting,” he said. “I look forward to doing it again.”
Rijo came to Oakland after the 1984 season in the highly publicized trade that sent Rickey Henderson to the New York Yankees. Rijo, however, already had his share of headlines in the Big Apple, where he had been pegged as the Yankees’ answer to the Mets’ teen-age wonder, Dwight Gooden.
Rijo, who was born and still lives in San Cristobal, Domincan Republic, signed with the Yankees at 16. He then began a meteoric rise that saw him go 8-4 with a 2.50 earned-run average in Rookie League play in 1982 and 15-5 with a 1.68 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 160 innings at Ft. Lauderdale (Single A) in 1983.
In 1984, at the tender age of 18, Rijo began the season in Yankee pinstripes. And the inevitable comparisons to Gooden began.
They didn’t last long and neither did Rijo, who ended up back in Triple A after posting a 2-8 record and a 4.76 ERA in half a season in the majors.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Rijo said, “but the way they used me was a bigger problem. I got six starts, one here, another two weeks later. And then they started using me in long relief, short relief. . . . That was the big problem.”
Rijo admits his age and lack of experience were factors, too.
“I was throwing the ball really good until they brought me up,” he said.
After a stint at Tacoma, the A’s Triple-A affiliate, Rijo made his debut for Oakland last August and finished the season 6-4 with a 3.53 ERA.
This season, he’s 1-0 with a less-than-sparkling 5.03 ERA, but he’s struck out 25 in just 19 innings and may be on his way to becoming the dominant pitcher his teammates expect to soon see.
“I like him as a person and a player,” said Dusty Baker, who has faced--and played behind--his share of great pitchers. “Jose’s got a lot of maturity for a guy 20 years old. And he works hard. He’s determined to become a great pitcher.”
The way Moore sees it, there ain’t no stopping him now.
“He’s started to gain the confidence that’s so important up here,” Moore said. “I haven’t seen anyone in this league that throws any harder and he’s starting to get the ball over better now.”
Rijo says his recent success is because of better concentration, an improvement he attributes mainly to Andujar, a man known mostly for the time he completely lost his concentration . . . not to mention his composure.
“Joaquin has really helped me,” Rijo insisted. “He has taught me to think about (the location of) every pitch, instead of just trying to throw hard.
“My control is better than ever and I’ve never felt more comfortable on the mound before.”
It seems as if many American League hitters will be feeling less and less comfortable when they step into the batter’s box against Rijo.
“He’s always had the big fastball,” Moore said, “but when he gets the breaking ball (slider) over the way he was Saturday, well, it takes all the fun out of hitting.”