Ryan Rijo’s lost shot at big league stardom hasn’t hurt his passion

by Julius Hern

BARRIE — With the first pitch of the 2024 Intercounty Baseball League season coming up, the Barrie Baycats are preparing for their journey back to the IBL Finals after last year’s loss. They’re led by designated hitter Ryan Rijo, who enters his seventh season with the Baycats. However, he may never have gotten this far with Barrie if his big league dream that he was so close to achieving became a reality.

During his 2018 sophomore season at New Mexico Junior College, Rijo was impressive offensively. He hit .386 with 20 home runs and 59 RBI. His great year got him interest from the Kansas City Royals but he wasn’t on other teams’ radars until April 8th in Midland, TX.

“[The Philadelphia Phillies] were actually there to see the Midland shortstop play,” Rijo explains. “I’d only spoken to area scouts, but [the scouting director, Johnny Almaraz] saw me, and that’s where it took off.”

With major league eyes on him, Rijo was stellar. He went 4-7 with three home runs, a double and six RBI in a 26-15 Thunderbirds win. Chaps shortstop Frainyer Chavez went just 1-4, which easily set Rijo apart.

He committed to Abilene Christian University on a full scholarship, which would give him some leverage in contract negotiations. Unfortunately, after his commitment, head coach Britt Bonneau resigned to take on an assistant role at the University of Oklahoma. Dallas Baptist assistant Rick McCarty was hired to replace Bonneau, and he brought in multiple transfers from DBU, which forced Rijo out of his scholarship.

“I couldn’t afford it, so I [decommited],” Rijo details. “Word got to the Phillies somehow, and that hurt my draft stock.”

In the days leading up to the 2018 MLB Draft, Rijo’s projection was anyone’s guess. Him and his agent thought he would be drafted by Philadelphia in the eighth round, which would’ve fetched an expected $180,600 bonus.

To regain some leverage, Rijo committed to the University of New Mexico, but Philadelphia didn’t hear this news, and he was drafted in the 37th round (1,097th overall).

Unbeknownst to Philadelphia, there was another potential setback that may have hurt Rijo’s case: a broken hamate he suffered catching for the Baycats the previous summer. He played through the injury during the college season, and he didn’t think it would have affected his potential future in the Phillies organization.

“When I would’ve had to take a medical [examination], they would’ve seen that my hand’s broken. They would’ve been like ‘oh, okay. Well, we want you, we’ll let you [get surgery].”

Philadelphia showed extreme commitment to Rijo, despite selecting him late in the draft. They even flew him out to Citizens Bank Park for an introduction to the team.

“Typically, they don’t fly 37th rounders out,” Rijo says. “I think that was a way of saying to me ‘we do want you, please sign.’ They gave me my jersey in front of a bunch of people, I met Reggie Jackson and got to see [Aaron] Judge and [Giancarlo] Stanton hit bombs during batting practice.”

Not long after this expression Rijo had to make his decision between going pro or staying in college in hopes of climbing up the draft.

“I weighed out all the options,” Rijo explains. “I talked to some of the guys on the Baycats, family, friends. I’d say the whole process took about a month, and then I told them, ‘I can’t do it, I’m sorry.’”

Despite the disappointing nature of his decision, Rijo looks back at it differently than most might.

“It was tough having to say no to your dreams, but do I regret it? No. I got my education paid for. If I would’ve signed and they released me, I would never have gotten that experience.”

The ensuing fall, Rijo went to New Mexico and inquired about getting surgery on his hand. Him and the team staff had differing opinions about when and with whom he got the surgery, so he decommitted and played the 2019 season at Lubbock Christian University after getting surgery back home.

He continues to play for the Barrie Baycats and is cementing himself as a franchise legend. In 2023, he hit .359 with 11 home runs in 36 games and set the team’s single-season record for RBI (48), helping him earn first-team IBL all-star honours.

Rijo’s passion for the community and on-field play has made him one of the most recognizable figures in the city. He’s a jovial presence in and around the ballpark, seen as the fan-favourite and the most approachable player on the team.

“From when I started to now,” Rijo says. “How many fans we see, the kids that come out, the consistency of how our fans interact with us, it’s great to see. I think we have the best fans in the league.”

Cover Photo: Bob Hurley