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Rios getting head start on spring training |

Rios getting head start on spring training

| Thursday, January 10, 2002 12:00 a.m

BRADENTON, Fla. – Armando Rios has spent this off-season building a house and rebuilding a knee. That has exhausted almost all of his time in his first winter with the Pirates.

“I go to Home Depot and HealthSouth,” Rios said. “Other than spending time with my family, those are the only places I go.”

That’s not how Rios envisioned the off-season unfolding when he was traded to the Pirates on July 30 in the deal that sent pitcher Jason Schmidt and outfielder John Vander Wal to the San Francisco Giants.

After hitting 14 homers and driving in 49 runs in 93 games with the Giants, Rios figured the best year of his career would continue on an upward trajectory. Then, he would be able to present a strong case for a rich contract through salary arbitration while preparing to entrench himself as the Pirates right fielder.

Of course, that’s not exactly the way it worked out for the 30-year-old Rios.

He played in only 11 innings for the Pirates, blowing out his knee in his second game and wiping out the remainder of his season. It was a bitter pill for Rios to swallow when he was informed Aug. 1 that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that required reconstructive surgery and a two-month head start on his off-season.

“The winter has been a little too long for me,” Rios said. “It started before I wanted.”

But with spring training little more than a month away, Rios is better equipped to put his problems behind him. It won’t be long until he can get out of the rehab clinic and back onto the playing field.

“It looks like in spring training he’ll be ready to go,” Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield said. “That’s a positive. His surgery appears to have gone very well. He’s working hard and trying to strengthen his knee.”

Rios was summoned to mini-camp this week so the Pirates medical personnel could get an update on his conditioning and rehabilitation. He was given clearance Wednesday to do cutting and turning drills on a grass surface.

Rios spent several minutes yesterday doing light sprints in the outfield under the watchful eye of assistant trainer Mike Sandoval. He was the last player off the field.

“That’s another step in the right direction,” Rios said. “I want to be able to start doing more baseball related stuff.”

Rios said he is running at about 65 to 70 percent efficiency. He hopes to be at 90 percent by spring training and completely healthy by the middle of March. One thing the left-handed hitter hasn’t done yet is swing a bat because of the pressure it would put on his back leg.

In a bizarre way, the trade to the Pirates indirectly caused Rios’ injury. Playing for a new team, Rios didn’t want to adorn the orange-and-black spikes he wore with the Giants. The Pirates issued him a new pair and he wore them without breaking them in.

In his first game, coincidentally against the Giants at Pacific Bell Park, Rios went back to the warning track for a line drive that sailed over his head.

“When I planted my foot on the track, my knee turned but my foot didn’t,” Rios said.

Rios decided to play the next night. He lasted all of two innings. The knee gave out while he tried to make a running catch behind second base. His season was finished.

“In two days, I went from being the happiest guy on earth to feeling sorry for myself, which I had never done before,” said Rios, who had never achieved full-time playing status in three seasons with the Giants. “This was what I was looking for, a chance to play and establish myself as an everyday player. The Pirates gave me that chance.”

His next chance will come in spring training, which can’t begin soon enough for Rios.

“All I’ve been doing this winter is working hard to make sure I’m ready to play this spring,” Rios said. “I’m going to make sure I’m ready to go when they need me.”

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