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Jose Rijo Reaches ‘School of the Big Time’

WASHINGTON POST

At 15, Jose Rijo was a picture of desperation. An uninspired student who seemed to excel only in sports, he lived with his family in a cramped, aluminum-roof house in the Dominican Republic, supported largely by two uncles who had moved to New York.

“We were so poor I had to play ball in a friend’s shoes, which were too small,” Rijo said. “The shoes were so tight and worn out I had blisters on each of my toes.”

The third youngest of his family’s 13 children, Rijo quit school in the equivalent of ninth grade to become a $600-a-month New York Yankees minor-league pitcher.

“I signed because I hated school, and my family needed the money,” Rijo said. “I knew leaving school was a big gamble. If I didn’t succeed in baseball, I didn’t know what I would do.”

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Today, at 25, Rijo is a picture of prosperity. A star pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds and the most valuable player of the 1990 World Series, he recently signed a three-year, $9 million contract.

“It’s a dream,” Rijo said, driving a white BMW 750IL, one of seven cars he keeps in his three residences, in Ohio, Florida and the Dominican Republic. “A dream that 10 years ago I never could have imagined.”

Rijo is the youngest member of that new breed in sport: the $3 million baseball player. As the 1991 major-league season opened Monday, there were 44 players who earned an average annual salary of $3 million or more.

But few, if any, had acquired fame and fortune as dramatically and unexpectedly as Rijo. “It’s incredible how much Jose’s life has changed,” said Reds General Manager Bob Quinn, who sends Rijo a check for more than $100,000 every two weeks.

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Rijo’s odyssey has not been storybook perfect. Less than two months after pitching the Reds to two World Series-game victories, he filed for divorce from his second wife, Rosie, alleging she was “guilty of gross neglect of duty.” Rosie Rijo denied the charge in court papers filed last month.

During the off-season in the Dominican Republic, Rijo said he was beseiged by people wanting a piece of his wealth. “I had 30 people a day asking me for money,” he said. “And people started calling me El Millionario. Even my friends started looking at me differently, which made me feel sad.”

And now he hears the question that’s asked frequently about multi-million-dollar athletes: Is he worth the money?

Rijo, during an afternoon-long interview in and around Plant City, Fla., site of the Reds’ spring-training camp, answered the question with a nod and a smile. “I think the Reds ended up getting me cheap,” he said.

The rise of Jose Antonio Rijo may be the stuff of dreams. But it is also a study in modern-day baseball economics. In how many industries can a 15-year-old employee increase his wages by 83,000 percent over 10 years, as Rijo has done in baseball?

“We get jaded by these salaries in our profession,” said Oakland A’s Vice President Sandy Alderson, who traded Rijo to the Reds in 1987. “But it’s remarkable Rijo is making so much money at such a young age.”

Until last year the 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-hander was known as a promising, if injury-prone, athlete who’d never won more than 13 games, never completed more than four games in a season.

But last summer he returned from 23 days on the disabled list to complete seven of his last 14 starts and post a 2-0 record and 0.59 earned-run average during the Reds’ World Series sweep of the Athletics.

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Suddenly Rijo was the talk of baseball. And the Reds had a decision to make: pay him what other top pitchers were earning, or risk losing him after the ’91 season, when he would become a free agent.

Marge Schott, the Reds’ majority owner, said she isn’t wild about a system that makes millionaires out of overnight sensations. In an interview last month Schott was asked if she thought Rijo was worth $3 million a year.

She responded: “He only really had one good year -- last year. No, I don’t. ... But I’m as guilty as the rest (of the owners). I mean, who’s worth that kind of money anyway? A person who runs General Motors doesn’t get that kind of money. The president of the United States doesn’t get that kind of money. Plus they (pitchers) only play part-time.”

Rijo says he’s worth every cent because of his late-season heroics, his potential to win 20 games in a season and because he’s paid his dues, toiling in nine cities over 10 pro seasons. “People think baseball players have got it easy,” he said. “But they don’t. Look at what I’ve had to go through.”

Rijo’s road to riches began in San Cristobal, a small Dominican town known for being the birthplace of Rafael Trujillo, the late dictator.

His father left home when Rijo was 4, so at various times he shared a sparsely furnished four-bedroom home with his mother, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle and some of his 13 brothers, sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters.

A student at a Seventh Day Adventist school, Rijo said he frequently skipped classes so he could play baseball and basketball. “That’s all I thought about -- playing ball,” he said. “I’d even miss meals -- tell my mother I wasn’t hungry -- so I could go to the stadium.”

At 13, he was discovered by a California Angels scout, Eddy Toledo. Worried that another scout might sign him, Toledo invited Rijo to move into his home in the capital, Santo Domingo, 18 miles to the west.

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Rijo’s mother, Gladys Abreu, refused to allow the move. “She thought I was too young to think about signing,” Rijo said. But two years later she had a change of heart when a Yankees scout offered a $3,000 signing bonus.

Rijo said he was excited about turning pro but nervous about quitting school. “When you gamble in life with your future, it’s not good,” he said. But at a going-away party in August 1980, he said, he told his friends, “Now I’m going to the school of baseball, to the school of the big time.”

It was a risky move, because only a small percentage of boys who sign pro baseball contracts ever make it to the big leagues. And for Dominicans the move is especially treacherous: Players released by pro clubs must return to a country where more than 25 percent of the adult population is unemployed.

But Rijo exuded confidence. “I don’t ever want to come back home some day and have to clean yards for a living,” he told his mother two days before leaving San Cristobal. “And I want to own more than a bicycle. I’m going to pitch in the big leagues some day. I know it.”

Rijo was assigned to the Yankees’ rookie-league team, then in Bradenton, Fla., where he shared a one-bedroom apartment with two other Dominicans. Nicknamed “Smiley” by his pitching coach, former major leaguer Hoyt Wilhelm, Rijo spent his evenings practicing English and reading from a Bible.

“I cried every day, because I was homesick,” he said. “But Hoyt helped me out a lot. Whenever I’d do something wrong, he’d tell me, ‘Well, I guess you don’t ever want to earn mucho dinero’ ” -- a lot of money.

In 1982, his second pro season, he was sent to the Yankees’ rookie-league team in Paintsville, Ky. On the day he arrived, he was almost struck by a car as he attempted to cross a street.

Frustrated, Rijo phoned his mother. “I told her I was going to quit,” he said. “I said, ‘Mom, I’ve had enough of this.’ My mom said, ‘If you’ve had enough, what are you going to do when you come home?’ ” Rijo said he pondered the question and told his mother, “I’d better stay here and take it like a man.”

He finished the season with an 8-4 record and a 2.50 ERA and in 1983 was sent to the Yankees’ Class A team in Fort Lauderdale, where he was named MVP of the Florida State League. He pitched two months for Nashville in the AA Southern League, then was unexpectedly invited to the Yankees’ 1984 major-league training camp.

Rijo was 18 and seemingly ill-prepared for the big leagues. But he was in the right camp at the right time.

“Our owner, George Steinbrenner, was very conscious about what the (crosstown rival) Mets were doing that spring,” said Lou Piniella, then a Yankees’ player-coach, now the Reds manager. “It so happens the Mets had a young phenom in camp by the name of Dwight Gooden. And Gooden was stealing all the headlines. So George said, ‘We’ve got to come up with a phenom of our own.’ ”

Rijo was it. So only three years after dropping out of ninth grade, he signed a $40,000-a-year major-league contract and moved into a high-rise apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Rijo had reached “the school of the big time,” as he’d promised his friends, and he was an emerging hero in New York’s sizable Dominican community.

“I was a little wild in New York,” he said. “There were a lot of (Hispanic) people there calling me, trying to take me out.” At times he stayed up all night, dancing in a Latin club in upper Manhattan. “I used to go to bed at 7 in the morning,” Rijo said. " ... I was young. I thought I was doing the right thing.” Asked if this lifestyle affected his pitching, Rijo said, almost in a whisper, “A little bit.”

He posted a 2-8 record and 4.76 ERA in Yankee pinstripes. “Jose was just rushed to the major leagues too quickly,” Piniella said. “He should have pitched a full season of triple-A baseball.”

After finishing the season with the Yankees’ AAA club in Columbus, Ohio, Rijo was traded to the A’s. Now he was 20 -- ready, he thought, to settle down. He married Josefina Araujo, a Dominican. But the marriage lasted only 11 months. “I was too young,” Rijo said.

Rijo had mixed success with the A’s as he bounced between the bullpen and starting rotation, between Oakland and the club’s AAA team in Tacoma, Wash. But he benefitted from an association with Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal, a Dominican who was the A’s Latin American scouting co-ordinator.

“I owe a lot to Juan,” Rijo said. “He taught me how to have patience, how to concentrate, how to prepare yourself before a game.”

Rijo dated Marichal’s daughter, Rosie, a student at San Francisco State. Marichal was unaware of the relationship, and when the couple announced wedding plans, he was furious.

“Maybe because he knows how ballplayers are, the lifestyle of the guys,” Rijo said. “I don’t blame him. (I had) the reputation of going out a lot. ... The hunt was on every day.”

His salary rose from $60,000 in 1985 to $110,000 in 1987, when he said he received an unexpected visit from his father, whom he hadn’t seen in 19 years. Rijo said his father sought him out “because I am a (major-league) baseball player.”

Jose Rijo and Rosie Marichal were married in September 1987. Three months later Rijo was traded to the Reds. “The A’s didn’t believe in me,” he said. “So I was a happy camper when I came to Cincinnati.”

In 1988 he compiled a 13-8 record and 2.39 ERA -- fifth best in the National League -- despite tendinitis in his right elbow. In ’89 he finished 7-6 with a 2.84 ERA, despite back problems.

The Reds saw promise in Rijo, and his salary continued its ascent: from $127,500 in ’88 to $457,500 in ’89 to $700,000 (with bonuses) last season, when he bought a cherry-red Porsche 960 Turbo from former Reds manager Pete Rose.

After the ’89 season Jose and Rosie Rijo became the parents of a boy, Jose Jr. But their marriage was beginning to unravel.

“She didn’t want me to visit my friends, go out and have a drink, whatever,” Rijo said of his wife. “She wanted me to let her know everything that I do, where I spend my money and what I spend it on. ... It’s tough to have somebody trying to control you.”

Rijo added, “When the woman wants to take control, you know, it ain’t going to work. You know, a man is a man. And I wear the pants in the house. I bring the food to the house. So I should have control.”

Rijo seemed unhappy that his wife often accompanied him on Reds’ road trips. “On the road is when (players) get to know each other better, spend some time together,” he said. “Talk about the game. Get a couple of drinks. ... And I believe in that.”

Rosie Rijo, who is expecting their second child in June, responded to her husband’s comments in a statement released by her lawyer. “My husband, Jose, is a wonderful baseball player and a world-class athlete, but he has a lot to learn about marriage,” the statement read. “Jose does not understand that a successful marriage, like a winning ball club, requires the efforts of more than one player.”

Despite the marital problems, Rijo pitched brilliantly last fall. In eight starts from Aug. 22 to Sept. 26 he was 6-1 with a 1.23 ERA. He finished the season 14-8 with a 2.70 ERA, fifth-best in the league.

Then came those World Series heroics: he pitched seven scoreless innings against the A’s in Game 1 and retired 20 consecutive batters in Game 4.

Rijo was all smiles after the Series. But the smiles faded when he returned to the Dominican Republic.

“People weren’t just asking me for $100,” he said. “I had people asking me for 2 million pesos (more than $150,000) to make a business. One person wanted to sell me a hotel. Everybody had a different problem. Some people said, ‘I need money for medicine for my baby.’ Other people said, ‘I need some money to buy rum.’ ”

Rijo said his mother was forced to build a fence around her house to keep out solicitors. “It’s sad,” Rijo said. “I like to help people who really need help. But people were trying to use me. And I hate to be used.”

In November, after a Caribbean cruise that ended in San Juan, Rijo said he had an argument with Rosie about his mother. The relationship between Rijo’s wife and his mother is strained, according to Jose Rijo and Rosie Rijo’s lawyer, Guy Hild of Cincinnati.

After the argument, “I said, ‘Forget it. If she doesn’t love my mom, she doesn’t love me,’ ” Jose Rijo said. “That’s when I really made my decision (to file for divorce). I said, ‘No way, Jose.’ ”

Jose Rijo alleged in the divorce suit, filed in Hamilton County (Ohio) Common Pleas Court, that he and Rosie are incompatible. In her answer to the complaint, Rosie Rijo denied that allegation, asked that the suit be dismissed and demanded -- in the event a divorce is granted -- “an equitable division of marital property together with an equitable distribution award of any separate property” owned by Jose Rijo.

“I don’t want to be changing wives like I’ve changed uniforms,” Jose Rijo said. “But a man’s got to do what he’s got to do.”

Rijo joked during the World Series that, after negotiating a new contract during the offseason, he’d need a U-Haul to bring all of his money to the bank. But Reds officials said they were uncertain of Rijo’s worth, especially after he filed for divorce.

Schott said she worried that Rijo, who has a 53-52 career record, would “go off the deep end” without Rosie. “You have that Latin element, you know, and Rijo gets very (emotional),” she said. “And I think Rosie kept him a little more calm.”

In January, after the Reds hadn’t offered to fill his U-Haul, Rijo filed for arbitration. Under this process, a player and his club each submit a one-year salary proposal to an independent arbitrator who decides which of the two figures the player will be paid.

Rijo’s figure was $2.9 million; the Reds’ was $1.6 million. “At the time, that’s what we thought Jose was worth,” said Quinn, the Reds’ general manager.

On Feb. 18, after some negotiations with Rijo’s agent, the Reds offered the three-year, $9 million contract, which included a $250,000 signing bonus, salaries of $2.25 million, $3 million and $3.5 million and incentive bonuses with a potential value of $500,000 per season.

Quinn said the Reds increased their offer after pitchers with credentials similar to Rijo’s signed contracts in the $3 million range this winter. “You make a value judgment,” Quinn said. “Our judgment was that Jose’s just now coming into his own ... and that he can only get better.”

Rijo said the Reds got a bargain because he believes he could have commanded $4 million or $5 million as a free agent. “I took the Reds’ offer because it’s insurance for me,” he said. “What if I had broken my arm? I’d never pitch again. I have to think about my family’s future first. Now I’m got my family’s future -- and my future -- in my hand.”

When he quit school at 15, Rijo said his math teacher cautioned him against abandoning his education for a shot at the big leagues. Now, he said, the teacher is one of his biggest fans. “Not finishing school hasn’t meant anything,” Rijo said. “I’ve accomplished most of the things I’ve wanted in life.”

He will be 26 next month, and he owns the Porsche, two BMWs, two Mercedeses, a Nissan Pathfinder and a Toyota Land Cruiser. He has a four-bedroom house in Cincinnati, a townhouse with swimming pool in Boca Raton, Fla., a penthouse apartment in Santo Domingo and he recently bought his mother a large house in San Cristobal.

In Plant City last month, Rijo smiled dreamily as he considered his life as El Millionario.

“It doesn’t seem long ago that I couldn’t afford to buy a pair of shoes,” he said. “So I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished. When I retire someday, I’m going to sit back, watch some video of myself and tell my kids, ‘Come see your daddy. He used to be a dandy.’ ”


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