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COLUMN: Slugger's life coming into focus, on and off the field

Ryan Rijo's long-term plan took a particularly special turn on the weekend when he proposed to his girlfriend Jenna Hutchinson
The Barrie Baycats' Ryan Rijo.

Ryan Rijo has a certain it quality about him.

The Baycats slugger has been mashing the ball even more than his previous five seasons for the Intercounty Baseball League club.

He does it all his own way and he’s impossible to miss. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Rijo to the naked eye seems bigger. With the bat in his hands, Rijo looks like he’s swinging a matchstick.

“You could call it big-boned, I (prefer) to call it well-tissued,” said Rijo, the glint in his eye almost visible over the phone, “…but athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and we aren’t all just defensive lineman.”

Consider the following conversation that took place in the crowd at the picture-perfect Christie Pits baseball diamond in Toronto on Tuesday night against the Maple Leafs.

“I watched this guy in batting practice,” remarked one man, who sounded and looked as though he could have been at the Leafs IBL opener 54 years ago.

“He belts it, but I’m not sure he could run the bases as well.”

It didn’t matter. Two pitches later, the 25-year-old Rijo stroked his sixth home run of the season. It gave his team a 3-0 lead in the first inning and it looked as though the Baycats were going to cruise to victory. As it turned out, the game turned into a pitchers’ duel before Barrie won it in the 12th inning without generating a hit – two wild pitches did the trick in a 5-3 victory.

That game pushed the Baycats record to 15-7, good for solo-second in the eight-team Intercounty loop, two-and-a-half games back of Welland, who have played three more games. Helped by a long win streak in June after an indifferent start in May, the club is rolling heading into Saturday’s matchup with the London Majors, the only other team to win an IBL crown in the past decade.

Rijo is among the league leaders in virtually all offensive categories, highlighted by his .397 batting average. Rijo’s offensive production earned him honourable mention for the IBL’s player of the month for June, won by teammate/pitcher Frank Garces, who leads the IBL in wins.

Rijo, who works in the insurance business when he’s not swatting baseballs and teaching local kids how to do the same, says his team is starting to remind him of the club that was the class of the league before the pandemic struck.

“We are young but I think (manager) Josh Matlow’s plan is coming to fruition,” said Rijo, who is one of four holdovers from the Baycats six consecutive championships before the pandemic.

Rijo was executing his own even more long-term plan on Saturday; he proposed to his girlfriend, Jenna Hutchinson.

Just past the half-way mark, it really is looking like a season for the ages for Rijo.

With Jenna and Ryan’s life journey now coming into focus, Rijo’s baseball path to get to this point has had a few twists and turns. A 2018 draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies, Rijo’s stock was hurt by some factors beyond his control five years ago. He had committed to a U.S. college but the coach who recruited him was fired. His negotiating leverage gone, a second school opportunity never panned out the way Rijo would have hoped and he slid down to the 37th round.

The MLB draft is unlike other pro drafts; unless you’re a high-end prospect, you need a few breaks to get a firm foot on the baseball ladder, which is the steepest of any sport. It didn’t work out that way for Rijo but he has some great memories, including being flown down for a weekend in the City of Brotherly Love, taking a major-league batting practice and getting a call-out and jersey presentatio  n in front of a packed stadium.

“I got to have Philly cheese steak with Ryan Howard,” he remembered of meeting one of his idols.

Locally, Rijo represents something quite significant. While not sounding annoyed or put-off, he said that it’s nice that local kids can look to the Baycats, Simcoe County Rovers soccer club and other non-hockey, non-winter pursuits to see that it’s possible to develop into a good player in whichever sport.

Wider opportunities are nice too – Rijo cited the example of Jake Julien, a former soccer player turned football kicker who is currently with the Edmonton Elks, after a successful U.S. college career at Eastern Michigan and a training camp with the New England Patriots. Rhyming off other local athletes that Rijo also played with or against growing up in various sports, Rijo says it’s important to show that the local sports scene takes place on more tableaus than just snow and ice.

It’s also a motivating factor in his teaching local kids in both baseball and softball.

“It’s always nice and I think it’s important to give back,” he said.

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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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