Jose Rijo Unplugged

When Jose Rijo, Dominican baseball eminence and MVP of the 1990 World Series, invited me to join him at his cigar bar in Santo Domingo, I quickly agreed. Here was a chance to witness a retired baseball player living in the afterglow of his career and also to pretend, as best I could, that I belonged at the table.

First, we had a farewell dinner with Alberto Pozo, our fixer. Alberto had promised us a final meal of authentic Dominican food—comida típica—which we had been eating, between sandwiches and Pollos Victorina fried chicken, for most of the trip. Alberto decided on El Conuco, a touristy joint with an extensive buffet and live dancing. We sat at a table close to speakers blaring bachata music, and as the house dancers clapped and twirled in front of us, I picked at a bowl of sancocho, a stew made with seven meats. That conversation was all but impossible wasn’t as awkward as it might have been. After dozens of hours in the car with Alberto—and a few with his 6-year-old daughter, Paula—to call him a “fixer” would do him little justice. He was a friend and fount of boundless optimism—his answer to my entreaties for more bureaucrats or baseball players was always “No problem.” Alberto has an entrepreneur’s zeal, and if anyone can make “baseball tourism” into a Dominican industry, it is he.

Rijo’s cigar bar was a few blocks down the road, tucked into one of the giant, neon-lit casinos that line the Malecón on Santo Domingo’s waterfront. We rolled up around 9 and spotted the pitcher wearing a lime-green shirt and sitting at an outdoor table with about half a dozen friends. When Rijo saw us approaching, he made a few sharp movements with his hands, and we suddenly found ourselves propelled into seats. Spanish-language torch songs were wafting through the windows of Rijo’s white Lexus SC430 convertible, which was neatly parked next to the table. Slowly, as I acclimated myself to the surroundings, something else became apparent: The great Rijo and his friends were not merely listening to Spanish torch songs, they were singing them, in unison—a sing-along that, after pausing a few seconds for our arrival and drink orders, resumed in its full-throated glory. It was the kind of karaoke performance you do not normally encounter on Old Timers’ Day.

The lead singer was a Rijo confidant, Ramón Antonio Otero, a pudgy, middle-aged man who later told me, “My name is artist.” As he tackled songs like “Que Se Mueran de Enviada” and “Esclavo y Amo,” Otero sung in an exaggerated mock-opera style: chest pushed out, palms fluttering against pectorals, lower jaw tucked into his clavicle. A few times, I saw Rijo push buttons on his cell phone and hold it up for Otero to sing into the receiver. When I finally asked Rijo whom he was calling, he said it was his wife’s answering machine—he was leaving her a serenade.

The scene was fitting, because as a pitcher Rijo had always been something of an exotic. The San Cristóbal native made his major league debut at 18, in 1984, and by 26 he was on pace to become a Dominican legend on the order of Juan Marichal and Osvaldo Virgil. “I became a king,” as Rijo once put it. Injuries cost him a chance to be a transcendent pitcher—he endured five surgeries on his right elbow alone—and he dropped out of the game in 1995. But after a grueling rehabilitation, he was able to claw his way back into the majors, and in 2002, nearly seven years after he’d started his last game, he pitched the Reds past the Cubs. In retirement, Rijo has become rounder and more kinglike, with courtiers inside and outside the game.

Between songs, Rijo introduced the gallery that had arranged itself around him. It was a group of regulars that had come to enjoy Rijo’s halo of celebrity, snifters of Jameson, and top-quality cigars. One gray-suited gentleman who stopped by to pay his respects was, someone leaned in to whisper, “in the government.” A tall, comically good-looking man in a tight pink polo shirt turned out to be the engineer who designed and was supervising construction of the D.R.’s first subway system, the earthworks for which we had seen earlier in the trip. Linen jackets were held rakishly over shoulders, and every other minute a joke would be made at somebody’s expense, bringing the table’s ever-simmering laughter to a burst. A couple of young women had taken over a table a few yards away and were making expectant eyes at our group, but this was plainly a boys’ night out—an evening of bawdy jokes and gleeful showmanship. I could understand only half of what was said—most of the performance was en español—but it was one of those rare occasions in adult life where you find yourself giggling along like a confused toddler and yet feel no shame. The sole allowance for feminine delicacy was the smaller, vanilla-flavored cigar one member of the entourage deemed appropriate for my companion Megan Hustad; she was duly chastised every time she allowed it to go out.

Alas, thanks to a new anti-crime ordinance, the bars in Santo Domingo shut down at midnight, so a few members peeled off and the rest made motions to take the party inside the casino. Just then, Otero turned to us and said, “Now, I sing for you in English. My English is not good.”

“But it is good!” Rijo interjected.

Attempting to prove his friend right, Otero gamely started in on “My Way.” Rijo joined him for the chorus and softly shook a pair of maracas. It was at this point that I entered a state of delirious happiness I have rarely experienced since childhood. I was in the company of a pitcher whose baseball cards I had collected, whom I had once watched win two World Series games on television. He was handing me drinks. And cigars. He was performing a song. With maracas. It was a rather grandiose end to our baseball tour, a symbol, I guess, of the extravagant lifestyle that awaits in the major leagues. For the triumphant final verse—”For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught”—Rijo sung harmony, and he and Otero finished the song on their feet. There was a light smattering of applause, a few cat calls.

At one point, Rijo excused himself to take a phone call from Jim Bowden, the general manager of the Washington Nationals, who wanted to talk with Rijo about Dominican prospects. “Bowden told me, ‘I need you here,’ ” Rijo told me later, shaking his head. “I said, ‘I’m having too good a time!’ “