"He told me to take it easy," Rios said in an interview back then. "Slow it down and swing at good pitches. I think I did. I took his advice and it worked pretty good."
The advice Howard gave him was during the Home Run Derby in San Francisco, in which Rios came in second behind Vlad Guerrero. The problem, many would say, is that Rios never took those words beyond that moment, and he didn't apply them to the greater part of his approach to baseball.
And now is when the hard part begins.
For the first three months (and three days) of the season, the White Sox have done what only few have expected but many more had hoped. Outside of making Kenny Williams look like one of the smartest GMs in the business (possibly saving his job in the process), the South Siders have put themselves in position to play out the rest of the season as one of the front-runners for the AL crown.
Thank you Paulie, thank you A.J., thank you Adam Dunn for the resurrection, thank you God for allowing Jake Peavy to remain healthy, thank you Chris Sale for the ascent to ace status and becoming the best bargain in baseball not named Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, thank you Youk for deciding to put on a better pair of Sox, thank you Robin for being the anti-Ozzie.
But of all the players (and manager) who have played a role in getting the White Sox to this point, most integral to the team's success in the second half of the season is the one player everyone -- outside of overtly keen members of the media and those never-say-die diehards who feel an almost religious connection to the White Sox -- seems to have almost forgotten: Rios.
Yeah, him. The pretty one, the kid with the promise of six genies who didn't have an ounce of Aladdin or a young Larry Hagman in him, the almost-can't-miss prodigy via Puerto Rico who had scouts saying before he entered the league in 2004 that if he stayed focused and committed to the game could one day follow in Carlos Beltran's shadow, the one who the Sox knew would sooner than later come around and be worth the $12M-13M per year they inherited once they picked him up off waivers three years ago, the one for whom they never gave up hope.
Alex Rios is that dude now. Finally. He's finally become that person of interest and intrigue, instead of a cloud of confusion and trade bait. Nothing against any of the aforementioned players above and not to put any undue/unwanted pressure on him to overachieve, but Rios will be the sole reason the White Sox make it to the postseason or not, win the division or not, have the Rangers and Yankees wondering why the White Sox won't fade away and the Indians and Tigers wondering why they can't catch up.
The .318/12/49 line, to go along with the .352 OBP and .522 SLG that he ended the first half with are all above his career averages, or the fact that he's leading the AL in triples or, more importantly, how his hitting has made it impossible to pitch around Konerko are almost meaningless in what makes him the centerpiece of the WSox second-half run.
It's the reality that for the first time in his career, Rios seems comfortable in his own skin and not the skin of living up to others' expectations and his internal promise. He's finally in the skin he found himself in when baseball was a four-letter word (game) and not an eight-letter enterprise (business).
He's basically reimaging himself in front of us.
Just watch him now. His swing is back to beautiful, his pace at the plate seems to have slowed, he no longer seems to have that anxiety to prove, he's so relaxed in the mind and approach it's as if he recently discovered Rakim.
"He's the glue," a Sox fan said Sunday after Rios hit his second double of the game in the 11-9 loss to his former team, the Blue Jays. A game in which Rios went 3-for-5 with a home run and 4 RBIs. A game where, as everyone left the stadium, I heard some other fan say: "You can blame everyone for this one except Rios."
Which will be the overall sentiment once the post-All Star break begins. Yes, the Sox young arms will have to hold up and whichever team in the Central has the best winning record at home will be major factors into how the rest of the season plays out, but when the dry ice clears and the dog days of a summer pennant/wild-card race are in full effect, it'll be the play of Rios that can be singled out as the reason the White Sox are in it or if they're not.
We need to finally come to the realization that he has become that good and, to this team, he is that damn important.
Forty years ago almost to the day in 1972, Dick Allen was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a White Sox uniform in the dugout juggling baseballs with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The cover line read: "Season Of Surprises: Chicago's Dick Allen Juggles His Image."
He was the Alex Rios before Alex Rios.
Allen went on to win the AL MVP that season.
I did use the word prophecy earlier, didn't I?