Ray Negron's Playball Weekly Blog

Gooden was , The Road to Rijo

It was the winter of 1983. The talk in the baseball world was about this 19-year-old boy from Tampa, Florida. His name was Dwight Gooden. The reports from scouts around the country were that he was another Nolan Ryan.

The buzz was so big that the Mets started to consider having this kid make the jump from A ball with a cup of coffee at double the last month of the season to the Major leagues in 1984.

I remember talking to Yankee owner George Steinbrenner about this and he was not a happy camper. He kept on saying that his baseball people didn’t do a good job. How could this kid be in his own backyard and Gooden not be a Yankee?

That was just the competitive nature of Mr. Steinbrenner. Knowing him as well as I did, he would have said the same thing about Rod Carew who was raised in Washington Heights NY.

Someone in the minor league department mentioned to me a kid in the Dominican Republic named Jose Rijo. They told me that he didn’t throw as hard as Gooden but he had excellent breaking pitches and maybe the best slider they had ever seen.

At that point, I decided to go to the Dominican Republic and see for myself. I heard he was playing winter ball for the very popular Licey team.

I was told not to journey by myself to the Dominican because things could get hairy.

What I needed was a scout who knew the country. Let’s not forget this was 1983. Certain parts of the Dominican could be a tiny bit primitive then.

A good friend of mine, Omar Minaya was just coming back from playing professional baseball in Italy after pro stints with the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners. Omar actually knew baseball talent better than anyone I knew and let me add that Omar was born in the Dominican. I explained the situation and asked him to come with me.
I wanted Omar to go because he knew the country better than most and he could take a good look at Rijo and give me an honest evaluation.

It was a hilarious journey because when we got to the Dominican Republic, Rijo had just pitched and he didn’t have to come back till his next outing.

We looked for Rijo everywhere. We left messages for him all over the island. Finally, Omar found a friend who knew how to locate him. It was set up that he would meet us at the lobby of some hotel in a town called San Cristobal.

It felt like magic as this young dynamic individual showed up. He had the biggest widest smile that you would ever want to see.

He was truly all of 18 but his charisma was overwhelming. I explained who I was and having Omar there gave me instant credibility. We talked a little about Dwight Gooden and I told him that I needed him to be my Gooden on the Yankees. With his giant smile, he said, You got that right!

When he got to pitch his next game against a team called Las Aguilla’s and he snapped off a fastball, a change-up, and then a slider for strike three, I took a look at Omar Minaya’s face and I saw all I needed to see.
That spring training all the talk around the Grapefruit League was Gooden, Gooden, Gooden.

I could see in Steinbrenner’s face that he wasn’t happy that the Mets were getting the back pages of the News and the Post every time Gooden pitched. The 19-year-old prodigy was truly the buzz.

All of a sudden the New York writers started talking about the Yankees 18 year old Rijo. This gave me the courage to start my own campaign for Rijo. I did my research and found out that Rijo would be the youngest Yankee ever. I brought this to the Boss’s attention. I knew that his baseball people would not be too keen on the idea of this teenager being thrown into the big leagues a couple of years before he was ready but in the right situation, I also believed that he would be ok.

Knowing the Boss the way I did I knew that nothing would make him happier than doing something like this and stealing some of the thunder from the boys from Flushing Queens.

Mr. Steinbrenner took it a step further. He, as we all know was a marketing genius and the fact that he had Phil Niekro on the pitching staff, the Yanks would now have the Youngest and the oldest pitchers/ players in the major leagues. As a matter of fact, the two made the cover of the Sporting News.

The one scenario in this situation was that Jose Rijo had to live with me and my Parents during the season. I spoke to my mom Jenny about it and naturally, she said yes.

That season Dwight Gooden would go on to become the National League Rookie of the Year. Jose Rijo would stay with the Yankees till June then sent to the minors for more seasoning. The following season Gooden would win the Cy Young award and Rijo would be traded to the Oakland A’s for future hall of famer Ricky Henderson. In 1986 Doc Gooden would lead the Mets to a World Series Championship. Jose Rijo would get traded to the Cincinnati Reds and become one of their all-time great pitchers. In 1990 Rijo would lead the Reds to a World title and become the Most Valuable Player during that classic.

Today I received a beautiful phone call from Jose Rijo. He wanted me to please congratulate Dwight Doc Gooden on being inducted into the N.Y. Mets Hall of Fame.

Jose Rijo said … I take great pride in being the youngest Yankee ever and I know it would not have happened without the timing and greatness of Doc!

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