Suspension behind him, Rincon relishes role in Twins' bullpen

Updated: February 22, 2006, 9:03 PM ET
Associated Press

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Juan Rincon can't erase his name from the list. All he can do is keep looking forward and focusing on his job as one of baseball's best setup men.

"Relievers, we need to have short memories," said Rincon, whose 2005 season was blemished by a 10-day suspension he served last May after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Devastated by the news, the right-hander from Venezuela has sworn his innocence and filed a still-unresolved grievance to recoup the $24,044 he lost during the ban.

During the first year of the toughened-up testing rules, several players -- particularly those from Spanish-speaking countries -- claimed confusion over what was all right to take and what wasn't. Rincon said he has since received a more-specific list of the actual products that are banned -- not simply the substances.

"That's huge," he said.

After his punishment was over, Rincon returned to his role with the Twins and finished the year with a 6-6 record, 2.45 ERA, 84 strikeouts and a .224 opponent batting average in 77 innings. In 2004, he was 11-6 with a 2.63 ERA in 82 innings with 106 strikeouts and a .181 opponent average.

"Being blamed of using steroids? My numbers were the same before and after," Rincon said. "It didn't stay in my mind, because I had nothing to hide or anything like that. I was mad because of the things that I was going through, but it didn't affect me. I was able to put it aside and keep going."

Though the organization didn't enjoy seeing "Minnesota" appear on the list of busted players in the major leagues, which reached 12 by year's end, support for Rincon flowed from the front office, the clubhouse and the bullpen.

"When his name popped up, I thought it was a joke at first," closer Joe Nathan said. "Knowing him, I thought this was one of his pranks or something. ... With this testing, you've really got to be careful and you've really got to pay attention to what's going into your body."

General manager Terry Ryan was taken aback.

"There were questions to be answered," he said. "I didn't have the answers. And if I did, I couldn't answer them anyway because there was confidentiality surrounding that whole deal.

"Juan's a good human being. He's a good teammate. He's responsible. Lesson, for all of us, learned from it. ... It caught people's attention, that's for sure, because at the time he was the highest-profile player to have tested positive."

This spring, Rincon has been held back from bullpen sessions to allow more time for his elbow to heal. He had routine surgery to remove a bone chip last October, and the joint was still sore over the winter after the three times he tried to throw. So he's been told to take his time and resume full activity whenever he's ready.

Occasionally, the banned-substance issue will come up in a question from a reporter, and Rincon can reflect on how much he appreciates the network of people around him.

"Everybody on this team, they were just awesome," he said.

Though they didn't come as often as the Twins expected, Rincon was taunted from time to time when they played on the road.

"I had a couple persons yelling things at me, but you can't do anything about that," he said. "It's a part of the game. You've just got to get focused on the game, or you're going to pay. You've got to forget about it. If you don't do anything wrong, they're going to boo you anyway."

That's the thing about being a reliever.

"You forget about stuff," fellow bullpen member Jesse Crain said. "If you're worried about anything that happened before, then you're going to be in trouble."

Game notes
Jose Mijares, the 21-year-old left-hander from Venezuela who was missing from camp, arrived three days late. Mijares, who finished last season at Class A Fort Myers, had trouble traveling to his local airport and didn't immediately alert the team about the delay. But he's expected to participate in Thursday's workout.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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