At 15, Jose Rijo was a picture of desperation. An uninspired student who seemed to excel only in sports, he lived with his family in a cramped, aluminum-roof house in the Dominican Republic, supported largely by two uncles who had moved to New York.
"We were so poor I had to play ball in a friend's shoes, which were too small," Rijo said. "The shoes were so tight and worn out I had blisters on each of my toes."
The third youngest of his family's 13 children, Rijo quit school in the equivalent of ninth grade to become a $600-a-month New York Yankees minor-league pitcher.
"I signed because I hated school, and my family needed the money," Rijo said. "I knew leaving school was a big gamble. If I didn't succeed in baseball, I didn't know what I would do."
Today, at 25, Rijo is a picture of prosperity. A star pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds and the most valuable player of the 1990 World Series, he recently signed a three-year, $9 million contract.
"It's a dream," Rijo said, driving a white BMW 750IL, one of seven cars he keeps in his three residences, in Ohio, Florida and the Dominican Republic. "A dream that 10 years ago I never could have imagined."
Rijo is the youngest member of that new breed in sport: the $3 million baseball player. As the 1991 major-league season opened Monday, there were 44 players who earned an average annual salary of $3 million or more.
But few, if any, had acquired fame and fortune as dramatically and unexpectedly as Rijo. "It's incredible how much Jose's life has changed," said Reds General Manager Bob Quinn, who sends Rijo a check for more than $100,000 every two weeks.
Rijo's odyssey has not been storybook perfect. Less than two months after pitching the Reds to two World Series-game victories, he filed for divorce from his second wife, Rosie, alleging she was "guilty of gross neglect of duty." Rosie Rijo denied the charge in court papers filed last month.
During the off-season in the Dominican Republic, Rijo said he was beseiged by people wanting a piece of his wealth. "I had 30 people a day asking me for money," he said. "And people started calling me El Millionario. Even my friends started looking at me differently, which made me feel sad."
And now he hears the question that's asked frequently about multi-million-dollar athletes: Is he worth the money?
Rijo, during an afternoon-long interview in and around Plant City, Fla., site of the Reds' spring-training camp, answered the question with a nod and a smile. "I think the Reds ended up getting me cheap," he said.
The rise of Jose Antonio Rijo may be the stuff of dreams. But it is also a study in modern-day baseball economics. In how many industries can a 15-year-old employee increase his wages by 83,000 percent over 10 years, as Rijo has done in baseball?
"We get jaded by these salaries in our profession," said Oakland A's Vice President Sandy Alderson, who traded Rijo to the Reds in 1987. "But it's remarkable Rijo is making so much money at such a young age."
Until last year the 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-hander was known as a promising, if injury-prone, athlete who'd never won more than 13 games, never completed more than four games in a season.
But last summer he returned from 23 days on the disabled list to complete seven of his last 14 starts and post a 2-0 record and 0.59 earned-run average during the Reds' World Series sweep of the Athletics.
Suddenly Rijo was the talk of baseball. And the Reds had a decision to make: pay him what other top pitchers were earning, or risk losing him after the '91 season, when he would become a free agent.
Marge Schott, the Reds' majority owner, said she isn't wild about a system that makes millionaires out of overnight sensations. In an interview last month Schott was asked if she thought Rijo was worth $3 million a year.
She responded: "He only really had one good year -- last year. No, I don't. ... But I'm as guilty as the rest (of the owners). I mean, who's worth that kind of money anyway? A person who runs General Motors doesn't get that kind of money. The president of the United States doesn't get that kind of money. Plus they (pitchers) only play part-time."
Rijo says he's worth every cent because of his late-season heroics, his potential to win 20 games in a season and because he's paid his dues, toiling in nine cities over 10 pro seasons. "People think baseball players have got it easy," he said. "But they don't. Look at what I've had to go through."
Rijo's road to riches began in San Cristobal, a small Dominican town known for being the birthplace of Rafael Trujillo, the late dictator.
His father left home when Rijo was 4, so at various times he shared a sparsely furnished four-bedroom home with his mother, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle and some of his 13 brothers, sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters.