03 May “New Nilo” Eyes Quick Start
When the Miners open the 2022 season on May 12, Sussex County fans might be wise to keep an early eye on 23-year-old speed demon Nilo Rijo.
For one thing, he’s just plain old fun to watch. He plays baseball in old-fashioned fast motion, whether he’s flying around the basepaths or racing across the outfield. For another, if he starts this season the way he started last season, he could be gobbled up by some big league organization before the first full moon.
Last year? At age 22, Rijo helped lead the Miners to a quick 7-1 start as an exciting leadoff hitter and base stealer, and when the first official stats came out in 2021, Rios was No. 1 in the Frontier League with a batting average of .429.
Then came a cloudy Sunday afternoon game in Troy, NY – a 6-0 loss to the Tri-City ValleyCats on June 20.
Cloudy? Try disastrous. With one out and nobody on in the top of the seventh, Rijo rapped a two-hopper to third base and beat it out for an infield hit. But, his foot hit the front of the bag awkwardly and he ended up on the ground and in the worst pain of his life.
Diagnosis: compound fracture of the left ankle, a bad one. Emergency surgery. Season over.
“It was a very expensive base hit,” Rijo recalled this week during preseason camp at Skylands Stadium.
“You know how they say to rate your pain from one to ten? Well, that was a ten. I never felt anything like that before. It was almost make-believe it hurt so bad.”
After surgery came months of rehab, but Rijo wouldn’t take it lying down.
“I was back in a batter’s box as soon as I could,” he said. “I had to sit down with my left leg up on a chair, but I could still swing the bat and hit off a tee.”
Today, he says he’s back up to full speed.
“Like it never happened,” he said. “In fact, I’ve had time to think about things and to work on things and I’m going to be a better player now than I was before. This is the ‘New Nilo.’ I’m ready to go. I can’t wait to get this season started.”
He knows that a quick start like last year’s could win him a second shot at the big leagues. He definitely did not get much of a chance when he signed with the Boston Red Sox as a 20-year-old free agent out of junior college in October 2018.
The Sox sent him to Fort Myers, Fla., in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League for the 2019 season, where he spent most of his time on the bench, appearing in just 27 games.
The victim of both a numbers crunch and the Covid-virus shutdown, Rijo was released by Boston in May 2020.
Known for his speed since his teenage days at Passaic High School, Rijo has plenty of experience hitting leadoff, and he enjoyed that role at the start of last season.
Born in Puerto Plata, on the scenic northern coast of the Dominican Republic, Rijo’s family moved to New Jersey when he was 13. At Passaic, he enjoyed playing point guard on the basketball team, but baseball was his true love, and he would then play infield for the Roadrunners of Rowan College South Jersey – Gloucester.
He was always a shortstop, but shifted to the outfield last year. In addition to his offseason of rehab, he’s stayed in shape working out daily and working with high school and younger players as an adviser at a sports training facility in Wayne.
“I’m running hard,” he said, crediting his colleg coach, Rob Valli, for continuing to inspire and motivate him. “My confidence level is there, right where it’s always been. That’s one thing you can never let fall.”
Off the field, Rijo loves visiting New York City, especially for Italian restaurants and food like “lasagna, chicken alfredo, anything with cheese.” As a Jersey Guy since 13, he has accepted the responsibility for teaching his out-of-town teammates about real pizza, and about real Dominican food, as well.
And, when games end, he’s a lucky player who gets to return to Passaic each night and to his mother’s rice and beans and other home cooking.
“She makes some Italian food, too,” he said. “It’s actually Italian recipes with a Dominican taste.”
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Trentonian.