Sixteen years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays drafted Alex Rios 19th overall and assigned him to rookie ball at their affiliate in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
“The only thing I can recall,” he said, smiling, “is big mosquitoes that we used to get on night games.”
Small wonder he couldn’t recall more: That was where he began a 556 minor-league-game and 1,691-major-league-game Odyssey to his first postseason in MLB, finally this year ending his sad distinction as the active player who’d gone longest without appearing in the playoffs.
“It’s been a long road,” Rios said after going 3-for-3 with a home run to help the Royals clobber the Blue Jays 14-2 on Tuesday to take a 3-1 lead in the American League Championship Series.
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With some symmetry, though, to the way it has twisted.
With a resurgence against the organization with which he spent a decade, playing in a stadium, the Rogers Centre, where he was jeered the hardest of all Royals on Monday and taunted thusly when he came to the plate in the second inning Tuesday:
“You’re not as pretty as you used to be,” a fan bellowed, audibly in the press box if not home plate.
In general, the ever-cool Rios took no exception to what he called “that kind of ambiance” and dismissed as mere noise.
And apparently that specific crack had nothing to do with the home run Rios then hit.
“No, I didn’t hear that,” he said, smiling. “But that’s a good one.”
There is testimony in this to the mindset that has both sustained Rios and at times exasperated Royals fans watching him.
Because Rios carries himself with, well, a certain regal elegance.
On a baseball field, that demeanor can appear more like nonchalance than reserve or restraint, particularly in comparison with the demonstrative likes of Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez or the hyper- hustle of Ben Zobrist
The 6-foot-5 Rios’ lopes for a ball can look like saunters, his calm at the plate like apathy.
“I’ve never been a guy who shows too much emotion on the field,” he said. “I just do what I have to do, and that’s it.”
So he just smiled when asked if there was any extra satisfaction in the home run here and said he hadn’t thought about it beyond that it was “good to give the team a little room to play” — a 5-0 lead.
Playfully asked if that was all he had, he just smiled more.
Still, it’s evident what his late-season surge has meant to him and the Royals, who stuck with him through a long funk out of manager Ned Yost’s belief that Rios could catch hold the more he distanced himself from the injury that hampered him long after he returned.
“He’s a professional; he’s been a professional for a long time,” Yost said. “He doesn’t panic in at-bats. There’s a lot of good things about his game that allow you to have patience with him.”
And now here Rios was, for the third time this postseason making a key impact on a game batting out of the No. 9 spot.
Earlier, he engaged the epic eighth-inning rally in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against Houston with the first of Kansas City’s five straight hits.
In Game 5 against Houston, he drove in the go-ahead runs, and his work on Tuesday was a reminder that the Royals have pop all the way through their order.
“There’s no dead spots in that lineup …,” Yost said. “These guys all have the ability to keep a rally going.”
With Rios keeping it fluid at the bottom of the order, now he’s a win away from his first World Series.
It’s been “remarkable,” he added. “It makes it so much sweeter after going through all this.”
Insert your own interpretation for “going through all this,” because any number of points could apply.
Rios evidently was speaking to the long overall slog to this moment, but he just as easily could have meant the microcosm of that in this season alone when for so long it appeared he’d been a bust.
Incurring a case of the chicken pox at age 34 might sum up the oddities adequately in itself.
But he also missed 40 games after suffering a broken bone in his left hand, which still is swollen.
“It’s going to be like that,” Rios said, smiling and adding, “It’s a good reminder.”
Just like being booed, as he was at times at Kauffman Stadium this season.
And was and will be again here, with the organization that gave him his start to a long journey.
“I would say,” he said, “that’s a way of fans appreciating what you do.”