GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Johnny Cueto pulled up the sleeve on his left arm and showed the tattoo emblazed on the bottom side of his forearm.
"Cristina" is what it reads in elegant lettering.
Cueto was back in Reds spring training camp Thursday after returning from his native Dominican Republic where he had been dealing with a family health issue. It turns out, Cueto revealed with the help of teammate Brayan Pena, that the health issue was his mother Cristina undergoing open heart surgery.
Cueto said his mother is now doing well and he could return to Arizona with a clear enough conscience to continue preparing for the regular season and a scheduled start on Opening Day, April 6, against Pittsburgh.
"I thank God every day for giving my mom her health back. That really helped me," said Cueto through Pena, who was acting as his translator. "I feel like that’s going to help with my career because that’s something I don’t have to worry about anymore. So definitely I’ll be ready for Opening Day."
The Reds had not announced the specifics of Cueto’s departure from camp last week other than it was to deal with a health issue in his family. Cueto mentioned first that his mother’s health was doing well in recovery. Pena, then acting as Cueto’s public relations man, said it was open heart surgery.
"You guys didn’t know that?" Pena inquired good-naturedly. "Stop by my locker. I would let you know."
Cueto last pitched for the Reds on March 15 against the Chicago Cubs, going four innings and allowing two runs on one hit. He worked out while in the Dominican Republic. The Reds had said he would be working out at their baseball academy on the island but Cueto said he ended up doing his work on a mini field he has on his farm there with the help of friends.
"I’m taking it step-by-step," said Cueto. "Even though I was practicing down there in the Dominican it’s not the same when you get here. I think I’m going to get it but it takes time. It takes a little bit of time for me to feel comfortable. Right now I feel like I need to get back in my groove."
Manager Bryan Price said Thursday morning that Cueto should get his next start in the next few days and that it will be at the minor league level so that the Reds can control the number of pitches Cueto throws and the number of innings he’s able to pitch.
Cueto is coming off a season in which he became the first pitcher to win 20 games for the Reds since Danny Jackson in 1988. He led or tied for the lead in the National League in starts, innings, strikeouts and opponents’ batting average. He was runner-up to Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers in Cy Young award voting.
Cueto has always been close to his mother. Closer than even the tattoo on his left arm can indicate. She was the one who would watch over him and his friends in San Pedro de Macoris and make sure all was right with them.
"I’m not going to lie to you. It was very tough for me to leave my mom behind but she understood," said Cueto. "Right now I’m very happy that I’m back here with my teammates because I need to continue to work and we need to be together for what is coming."