CarGo's 'big brother' influence catapults prospect Rios

CarGo's 'big brother' influence catapults prospect Rios

DENVER -- During the holidays, we share trinkets and joy, but this is the story of a gift presented on Sept. 24.

Rockies star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez watched with pride from the visitors' dugout in Los Angeles as the Dodgers presented corner-infield prospect Edwin Rios, who hit 27 home runs at three levels in his first full pro season, with their Branch Rickey Minor League Player of the Year Award. The performance was Rios' thank you for all Gonzalez gave last winter, and continues to offer.

• Rios named Dodgers' Minor League Player of the Year

"I don't want to say something corny or anything, but it was crazy," recalled Rios, who at 22 is 8 1/2 years younger than Gonzalez. "We worked out last offseason, and we became real close. He and I shared a lot of stuff together. He invited me to his house for his Christmas party and stuff like that.

"To have him there that day of the award, it was awesome. Just being able to see his face, just to see how proud of me he was, made me feel great. It made me feel like I accomplished something."

The relationship between Gonzalez and Rios demonstrates that when professional athletes are their best selves, the giving of friendship and mentorship is not limited by the bounds of team affiliation.

Gonzalez lives in Orlando, Fla., during the offseason and decided to work out in renowned football strength and conditioning coach Tom Shaw's program, in which baseball players such as Martin Prado had begun to participate.

At the behest of George Gonzalez, who coached him in travel ball, Rios was at the Tom Shaw Performance facility, simply trying to find pro footing. A sixth-round pick in 2015 out of Florida International University, Rios was limited by a left hamstring injury to 22 games and just three homers in short-season ball the previous year at the Rookie level. He .301/.341/.567 with 76 RBIs in 108 games this past season.

When Gonzalez arrived, he saw the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Rios emulating Prado, a relatively small line-drive hitter. Rios was doing the same drills as Prado, trying to hit line drives all over the field.

Rios also let his competitive spirit boil over. One of the key charges of the Shaw facility is to prepare football prospects for the NFL combine. People like former University of Alabama star running back Derrick Henry were there increasing their 40-yard dash times. Rios re-injured his hamstring just trying to keep up.

Gonzalez stepped in.

"One of the things I first said to him was, 'Listen, you're 6-5, 250 pounds,'" Gonzalez recalled. "'No one expects you to steal bases. No one expects you to pull a hammy going down the line to first base. Understand your role.'"

Rios said, "He was not very happy about it. … He said it in a funny way, but he was serious about it."

Gonzalez also smiled and invited Rios to hit with him.

"He would always be like, 'You're like me. What do I do?'" Rios recalled. "And I was like, 'Man, you hit home runs.' And he said, 'Exactly. You've got to hit home runs.'"

Interestingly, Gonzalez offered little direct advice. It was as if Gonzalez's tip that Rios had everything it took to be admitted to the club of power hitters unlocked his potential.

"It was, in Spanish, 'Bombela la bola' -- hit a home run," Rios said. "That was his advice. It's funny, man. I get it. Hearing it from Carlos … it's hard to explain.

"For some people, it might be like, 'Come on, dude. You've got to tell me more than that. That's not working.' But for me, it clicked. We kind of saw eye to eye. We understood each other. I knew what he meant."

The relationship has grown beyond workouts. Rios calls Gonzalez a "big brother and a friend." The only times Rios remembers that he is close to a superstar is when his friends marvel at pictures the two post on social media. Rios said Gonzalez called and texted throughout the season.

The two are already back at it. They've been hitting in the batting cage for about four weeks, and the physical training at Shaw's facility at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando -- including extensive workouts with speed coach Bert Whigham -- will intensify in January. The players are able to hit at the Braves' Spring Training facility.

The program offers "explosion" (a squat is followed by a box jump or some explosive movement, Whigham explained) and change of direction with resistance bands. It also sees baseball and football players compete in sports like basketball and soccer, and sometimes trade duties, but all in good fun. And Gonzalez makes sure Rios does it in moderation.

When Gonzalez speaks of Rios, it's clear that Rios has given back to him through his success.

"He texted me right away when he found out he was the hitter of the year, and thanked me a lot," Gonzalez said. "He felt like I had something to do with it, so I'm proud of it.

"He should be more proud."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.