RIJO BRINGS NEW SPARK
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RIJO BRINGS NEW SPARK

Jackals’ fans are in for a treat when the Frontier League season opens on May 11. One of the new players in the New Jersey dugout is a real showstopper – a good hitter, a great fielder and true terror on the basepaths.

     Last year, Nilo Rijo played mostly second base for the Sussex County Miners, after playing shortstop and outfield in the past. He finished the year third in the league with 34 stolen bases, leading the Miners to the No. 1 ranking in the league in steals.

     Now 24, Rijo was signed by the Jackals last Dec.16, after a multi-player trade with the Miners on Nov. 30. He batted .271 with 35 walks and 15 doubles in 2022. And his coming to the Jackals marks a definite homecoming, as he grew up just six miles away and played ball at Passaic High.

     From there, he played for the Road Runners of Rowan College South Jersey in Gloucester, then signed a free agent contract as a 20-year-old with the Boston Red Sox in 2018. But he didn’t get much of an opportunity with that organization, appearing in just 27 games in 2019 with Ft. Myers in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. A combination of the Covid shutdown and an old-fashioned minor league numbers crunch led to his release in 2020.

     He returned to the Garden State in 2021 to join the Miners and got off to a quick start, batting leadoff and hitting .429 over the first two weeks on the schedule, but catastrophe struck on June 20 when he suffered a compound fracture of the left ankle and was declared out for the season.

     Months of rehab awaited him, but Rijo amazed his teammates by being back in the batting cage right away – taking BP sitting in a chair with his injured ankle elevated and resting in another chair. Before last season began, Rijo pronounced himself back to full speed, then he proved it with his exceptional play and amazing base stealing all year long.

     “It is fun to steal bases, but it’s also work,” he said. “I’ve always been fast, but that’s not enough to steal bases. There’s more to it than that, both mentally and physically.

     “First, you’ve got to have a plan in your head. It’s you against the pitcher and it’s you against the catcher and it’s also you against yourself because you’ve got to execute and get all the parts of your plan to fire off perfectly.”

     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 High, he enjoyed playing point guard on the basketball team, but baseball was his true love. These days, 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 age 13, he has accepted the responsibility for teaching his out-of-town teammates about authentic pizza, and about real Dominican food, as well, including his favorite, his mother’s rice and beans.

     “She makes some Italian food, too,” he said. “It’s actually Italian recipes with a Dominican taste.”

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

     Why are they called the New Jersey Jackals? Good question since nobody’s ever seen a real jackal anywhere near here. Those wolf-like canines live in Sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia. The answer to the naming question is probably just good old-fashioned alliteration – using the same letter to start two words in a row. Team founder Floyd Hall, a Montclair resident and former CEO of Target, Grand Union, and Kmart, probably just liked the sound of “Jersey Jackals” back in 1998.

     Meanwhile, the name of the Sussex County Miners makes a lot more sense. As far back as 1750, there was mining going on there, mostly for zinc, iron and manganese. In the 1890s, inventor Thomas Edison invested an astronomical $3 million on a huge mining complex just outside of Ogdensburg, in effect building his own industrial town on Sparta Mountain just minutes away from Skylands Stadium.

     Some baseball team names make sense. Some don’t. The Los Angeles Dodgers? Until 1957, they were the Brooklyn Dodgers, of course. And what were the nice folks in Brooklyn “dodging” in 1911? That was the year they officially became the Brooklyn Trolley. The current minor-league team in the city is known as the Brooklyn Cyclones, not because of any weather fiasco, but in honor of the iconic 1927 wooden roller coaster, the Cyclone, on the Coney Island boardwalk.

     Some minor league teams are legendary, and they’re close to revered by true baseball aficionados. Those names include the Buffalo Bisons (founded in 1877), the Chattanooga Lookouts (1885), the Toledo Mud Hens (1896), and the Durham Bulls (1915).

     Here in the Frontier League, there are no jackals in New Jersey and there are no grizzlies in Illinois. And, just what is a valley cat? Now the Joliet Slammers, that makes sense, at least for fans of the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers,” where actor John Belushi played “Joliet Jake,” referring to being in the slammer at the local state prison.

     Some minor-league team names are based on geographic or weather qualities, like the Norfolk Tides, Tennessee Smokies, and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. Still others are named after local wildlife – the Billings Mustangs, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, Great Lakes Loons, Hickory Crawdads, Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and Long Island Ducks, to name a few.

     Relevant local industries, crops and pastimes have always been a key source for minor-league baseball nicknames, for teams like the Tulsa Drillers, Reno Aces, Akron Rubber Ducks, Healdsburg Prune Packers and Cedar Rapids Kernels. 

     And there are some nicknames that take a tiny bit of explaining for some people, like the Augusta Green Jackets – referring to the honorary prize given to the annual winner of the nearby Master’s Golf Tournament, 

     Best of all, perhaps, are the names that make absolutely no sense, like the Sacramento River Cats. What? What’s a River Cat? Do these cats swim? And what about the Charleston River Dogs? The what? There’s the Portland Sea Dogs, Lincoln Salt Dogs, Amarillo Sod Poodles and Richmond Flying Squirrels (but no sign of Bullwinkle).

     Even stranger, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, Hartford Yard Goats, Lakeland Flying Tigers, and Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, who post website news items called “Bacon Bits.”

     No rhyme or reason for the Gastonia Honey Hunters, Burlington Sock Puppets, or Milwaukee Milkmen, whose slogan is “pro baseball that’s udderly different.” And it’s difficult to explain the Class Double-A team affiliated with the big-league Angels located in Madison, Alabama: they’re the Rocket City Trash Pandas.

By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.