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  Tue, August 24, 2004


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Jays' Rios the real deal
It's a good thing rookie's father made him stick with baseball
By MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

The neighbourhood was in a city of 100,000 called Guaynabo, 10 minutes from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Alex Rios wanted to spend more time in its malls and streets and less time on its ballfields.

He wasn't a street kid, his was a middle class existence and a private school education but this baseball thing was starting to get old.

He was 13, and he wanted to be with his friends the Velasquez brothers, Jose and Noel, and his cousin Luis.

"I wanted to quit," Rios was saying yesterday, sitting on the arm of a couch in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse.

EYE-POPPING

"It was the usual kid stuff. I wanted to go to the mall and stay out late in the neighborhood. I didn't want to worry about always having to get ready to play baseball."

The Blue Jays have one of the game's most eye-popping rookies because Israel Rios, a non-athlete but a wise parent, said no.

"My Dad told me, if I didn't play, I wouldn't be seeing too much of my friends," Rios said. "I decided to stick with baseball."

Everywhere, there are portents of the kind of future Alexis Rios, drafted in the first round, 19th overall, of the 1999 sweepstakes, brings.

Sunday, as the Jays completed a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles, Rios went three for five, threw a runner out at the plate and ended the game with a diving catch with the bases loaded.

It was an audacious play. Had the ball gotten by him, the bases would have emptied and the Jays would have been looking at least three runs across and a tie game. Instead, Rios committed to the ball from the moment it left the bat off Jay Gibbons. In a season in which the club has seemed to keep looking for ways to lose, Rios' catch amounted to a statement. He dared to win.

Going into last night's tilt against the Boston Red Sox, Rios, just 23, led American League rookies in batting average (.294), stolen bases (nine) and outfield assists (seven). He stood second in runs (44) and hits (86).

Rios should develop into a five-tool player. The hitting for average element is there already. Rios hit .352 in New Haven in the Eastern League last season and .305 with Dunedin the year before. He goes to the opposite field with ease but needs to learn more patience at the plate.

He has the best arm among Blue Jays outfielders and he can run like a puma. The base-running should progress with time.

All that's missing is the power. Rios, a six-foot-five, 200 pound right-handed hitter, hit 11 homers last year, but only three in Dunedin.

"I think he'll hit home runs," said Jays interim manager John Gibbons. "I played with Kevin Mitchell (owner of 234 big league homers) and he didn't hit any more than 11 in any minor league season. I think Alex is just growing into his body.

"I know I can hit home runs but right now, that's not what I'm working on," Rios said. "I'm just trying to get used to the pitching here and hit the ball well."

PARENTS

Rios was born in Coffee, Alabama, in the Southwest corner of the state. His parents, Israel and Maritza, left when he was just a couple of months old and for the life of him, Alex Rios has never got around to asking his parents what the heck they were doing in Coffee, Alabama.

"They must have been passing through," he said.

Rios, of course, has long forgiven his father for cutting into his mall time and if you consider the career graph of the Jay to whom he bears the most resemblance, Shawn Green, you get the idea Israel knew what he was doing.

Someday, soon, Alex Rios will be able to buy a mall of his very own.