Thursday, March 3, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Jose Rijo went to the Dominican Republic last week to find and sign young prospects to increase Latin talent in the Washington Nationals’ depleted farm system.

Little did Rijo know he would wind up being a freedom fighter of sorts.

The former Cincinnati Reds pitcher, who runs a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, saved six Cuban players who were jailed there from being deported to their native country.

Rijo, a Dominican native, pleaded their case to government officials and got the players released. They will be living and playing at Rijo’s baseball academy for the time being, he said.

“They had left to look for a better life,” Rijo said before yesterday’s exhibition opener between the Nationals and New York Mets. “They came over on a boat and were caught by the police. They were very scared. When they learned they were going to be sent back to Cuba, they almost started crying. They said they would rather be shot in the Dominican. They did not want to go back to receive the punishment they were going to get.”

Rijo did not identify the six — three outfielders, two infielders and a pitcher — but said they were All-Star-caliber players in their Cuban league.

“They have talent,” he said. “It will take a lot of money to sign those kids. Hopefully, we can sign one or two.”

The Miami Herald reported the arrests of the six players last week and identified one as Juan Miguel Miranda of Pinar del Rio, who played two years with Cuba’s national team. He had been suspended from Cuban baseball in the fall after government authorities accused him of planning to defect.

The two others identified by the Herald were Ayalen Ortiz, who reportedly batted .312 with five homers and 26 RBI as a Cuban league rookie in 2001, and outfielder Donell Linares, who played for Havana’s Industriales last year but did not make the team for this fall.

Otherwise, Rijo said he signed five prospects for the Nationals while he was in the Dominican: three outfielders, a pitcher and an infielder.

“They look very good, big bodies and loose,” he said. “They are playing right now over there and will play in the summer league in the Dominican starting in June. We want to teach them a little English and work on any problems that they may have. Then when they come to the States, the coaches here don’t have to work as hard with them.”

Rijo, 39, won 116 games in 14 major league seasons, including tours with the Reds from 1988 to 1995, plus 2001 and 2002. He was hired by Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden, who was his GM in Cincinnati, as a special assistant to increase the organization’s presence in Latin baseball.

The former Montreal Expos franchise once was one of the premier player development organizations in baseball, signing many Latin players. There are 16 on the Nationals’ major league roster.

“When I first came in here and looked at the minor league system, I saw there is nothing there,” Rijo said. “Hopefully, we can start signing some prospects. I don’t care how good you are at the major league level; you need to have a good minor league system.”

Rijo also will be with the major league club at times during the season, working with the pitchers.

“I will be in Washington a lot,” he said. “I have a lot of knowledge of the game, and it means a lot to me to share that knowledge with the young pitchers to help them get better.”

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