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Chicago Tribune

Rios Longs To Catch Wave

By Teddy Greenstein, Tribune staff reporter

May 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

OAKLAND -- Grab Armando Rios' arms and take a close look.

You'll find enough scrapes and scars to make you wonder why any major-league player would risk his limbs to make a headfirst slide.

Thing is, Rios' scars didn't result from anything he did on a baseball field. They came from his first love: surfing.

"It's from the coral reefs," he said. "Down on the bottom, they're pointy."

Growing up in Carolina on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, Rios and his friends would wake up before sunrise to catch the earliest waves in the Bay of San Juan. Almost nothing would keep Rios out of the water.

Nothing, that is, until he was 16 and a close friend, Raffy Medero, nearly died after losing control of his board and splitting his head open on a rock. That incident helped turn Rios' attention to baseball.

"We all like different things," Rios said. "When I retire, I want to jump out of planes. I want to skydive. But not now."

No, Rios is busy now with the White Sox. But not as busy as he'd like.

Although the former surfer doesn't want to make waves, he has trouble understanding why he has been used so sparingly of late.

"It's very frustrating," he said.

Tuesday marked the seventh consecutive game that Rios, a career .276 hitter, found himself on the bench rather than in the outfield.

Willie Harris started Tuesday for the fourth straight time in center field. Aaron Rowand started the previous three nights before being demoted to Triple-A Charlotte. The two combined for three singles in 19 at-bats in the six games.

To Rios, it appears the Sox are trying to develop players rather than simply trying to win.

"I understand we're struggling and everybody's going through a tough time," he said. "But when you see that the other options are not working and the team is not winning, it's tough.

"Six days on the bench, I understand ... well, I don't understand. I never lie about what I feel. Maybe in the past I've said some things that everybody knew but that I shouldn't have said. It's very frustrating."

Rios took a .279 average into Tuesday's game. He's 6-for-16 (.375) with runners in scoring position.

And it's not as if he can't hit lefties. He has a lifetime .273 average against them.

Rios' only action over the last six games came Saturday in a 12-2 loss to Seattle. The 31-year-old outfielder shook off the rust to drive Giovanni Carrara's 1-2 curveball into the right-field seats.

Rios was certain he'd start Sunday. He had to settle for words of encouragement from Sox manager Jerry Manuel.

Some of Rios' friends warned him about signing with an American League team. Without the double-switch, they feared Rios would grow mold on the bench.

But Rios, following an injury-plagued season in Pittsburgh, accepted the Sox's one-year offer for $450,000.

It was a sizable drop from the $925,000 he made last year, and it was less than some teams offered on a minor-league contract.

But the Sox all but guaranteed him a spot on the major-league roster. And they were among the first teams to contact him after he was put on waivers in November.

"That meant something," Rios said. "Hey, I had to take a step back [financially] just to go forward. I was hurt and now I'm back."

Rios endured a strange 2002 season. Five days before Opening Day, he collided with Minnesota first baseman Mike Cuddyer after hitting a foul pop. Cuddyer was briefly left unconscious while Rios took a direct shot to his left knee. That was the same knee that had been surgically repaired just seven months earlier.

The plan for Rios was to start the season in the minors. But after outfielder Brian Giles strained a stomach muscle on Opening Day, the Pirates needed him.

Rios' knee was swollen and painful. But after he hit .321 over his first nine games, Pittsburgh couldn't pull him out of the lineup.

"They threw me out there and we started winning," he recalled. "People were asking: `What are you doing?' But I'm not a superstar.

"They put me in the lineup and I want to play."

Rios' power stroke suffered. A year after going deep 14 times for San Francisco, where he hit fifth behind Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, Rios finished the season with one home run.

Now Rios is healthy and ready to produce if given the chance.

"I know myself," he said. "I know I can help. I've done it before."

The Rios file

Age: 31 (Sept. 13, 1971).

Born: Santurce, Puerto Rico.

Height: 5-9. Weight: 190.

  • Signed as undrafted free agent by San Francisco Giants in 1994 after helping LSU to College World Series titles in 1991 and 1993.
  • Named Giants minor-league player of the year after hitting .301 with 26 HRs and 103 RBIs at Triple-A Fresno (1998).
  • Struck out in major-league debut on Sept. 1, 1998 against Montreal but homered in his next two at-bats in consecutive pinch-hit appearances against the Dodgers.
  • Reached base in 29 of 30 starts while hitting .327 in rookie season with the Giants (1999).
  • Has 166 RBIs in just 960 career at-bats.

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