For the first time on our countdown, we will be giving a pitcher the distinction of being the best to ever wear a particular number in Reds history. Due to his hefty contributions to the club not only during his time playing, but also in his work with the organization since, Jose Rijo is the clear choice as the best to ever wear the #27.
Once the son-in-law of the legendary Juan Marichal, Rijo’s career began innoxiously enough. At the ripe age of 18, the New York Yankees sent him out to the hill, hoping to channel some of the lightning he would eventually catch, but was not yet able to produce. In typical George Steinbrenner fashion, Rijo was shipped away to Oakland, in exchange for one of the game’s all-time greats, Rickey Henderson.
Rijo showed flashes of the pitcher he would eventually become during his tenure in Oakland, even finishing his first season 6-4 with a 3.53 ERA in limited duty. Once again, Rijo was swapped for an All-Star, this time it was the Reds’ Dave Parker who went out to the West Coast, bringing Rijo into the Queen City.
As it is so often for young ballplayers, a change of scenery can do the trick. Even though he battled injuries throughout the entirety of his career, over the next six seasons, Rijo’s ERA never rose above 3 at the conclusion of the year. He was a major component of the 1990 World Series winning club, being the ace of a staff that featured “The Nasty Boys” at the backend of the bullpen.
Possibly his best season came the following year in 1991. Rijo ultimately finished fourth in Cy Young voting behind Tom Glavine, Lee Smith and John Smiley, respectively. Rijo led the National League in winning percentage, going 15-6, as well as having the lowest WHIP (Walks/Hits per Inning Pitched) in the Senior Circuit.
His good fortune would continue into 1993 where tied for the lead league in starts made, and led the league in strikeouts, with 227. All this was good enough to net him a fifth place finish on the Cy Young ballot.
As dominant as Rijo had been for a stretch, the writing began to appear on the wall. After leading the league in starts in both ’93 and ’94 (granted, it was the season of the strike), Rijo’s arm began to break down. Significant elbow trouble was on his horizon, shutting him down midway through the ’95 season.
As a testament to his grit and desire, Rijo made a comeback nearly six years later to the very club that rode him for so long. He only threw 17 innings in 2001 before making nine starts the following season, and appearing in 31 games. Rijo’s comeback ultimately proved for naught, as he was unable to contribute significantly to a club that could have used some of his old power, but at age 37, the Dominican superstar was finally done.
In his life after the game, there have been some conflicting reports of Rijo’s involvement with drug trafficking, and the role he has played. Similarly to Pete Rose earlier this month, this award is judged on what the player gave on the field to the team, and it’s difficult to argue that Rijo was not one of the most dominant pitchers in the game for half a decade.
While Scott Rolen did garner some thoughts of winning the award, his numbers were just too little too late to justify taking him over the dynamic Rijo. Ernie Lombardi also wore the number for a year, but good ole’ Ernie’s issues with holding a number cost him again, as nearly a decade of dominance from Rijo overshadows any one year output.
Rijo has notably still been connected to the Reds organization, working with the young Dominican pitchers Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez. After quite a successful playing career, it is great to see Rijo give back to the game he loves, and the one that blessed him so dearly.