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The season stretches for 162 games over six long months, one of which is even called "the dog days." Preparing to play every day of the week presents a constant mental challenge. Half the games require living out of a suitcase. The bone-chilling cold temperatures of April and May give way to the oppressive heat and humidity like that which hung over the Cell on Friday night.
However, who among us believes that any of these and other extenuating factors excuse the athletes - the individuals who are paid handsomely to play a game they ostensibly love - from giving a maximum effort? Who would argue that it's OK not to make every attempt to catch a pop fly? Or dive for a grounder headed for the outfield? Or run out every ground ball?
Because of the All-Star break, Alex Rios hadn't played in four days, and as far as anyone knew he was superbly-conditioned when he jogged out to right field for the opener of the three-game series with Atlanta on Friday evening. In some weird way, this could have been a fresh start in an otherwise miserable season for the Sox, at least a chance to gain some respectability between now and the beginning of October.
Unfortunately all that ended precipitously when Rios gave a half-assed effort in the bottom of the fifth inning on what appeared to be a routine double-play ground ball. Unexpectedly, the grounder momentarily popped out of the glove of the Braves' talented young shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Instead of having a chance to beat the relay, enabling Alejandro De Aza to score the lead run from third base, Rios was doubled-up as the play resulted in yet another situation for our ill-fated crew.
"Alex didn't run. Simple as that," Steve Stone said before breaking away for a commercial.
Mind you that in the previous at-bat, Rios had doubled in two runs. He had no trouble legging it full steam to second base on that one.
So when it came time for Rios to
bat in the bottom take the field in the top of the seventh, manager Robin Ventura sat him down in favor of a pinch hitter replaced him with Casper Wells. What took him so long?
"Lately there's frustration," I heard Rios say the next day on The Score. "Everything becomes harder. I'm not using that as an excuse. It's something that shouldn't have happened. It's unacceptable behavior."
Aside from the fact that Rios should have made those statements right after the game and not the following day, we can commend him for taking responsibility. However, he added that he would have preferred an office meeting with Ventura rather than being publicly called out by his manager.
Good thing that Alex never played for Billy Martin. Only the quick action of coaches Elston Howard and Yogi Berra prevented a bloodbath in the Yankee dugout that June day in 1977 when Martin removed Reggie Jackson in the middle of an inning for what he determined was Jackson's loafing after a pop fly that fell for a double.
Today skippers such as Kirk Gibson, Buck Showalter, Ron Gardenhire, Joe Maddon and others certainly might have sent Rios to the clubhouse post-haste. Possibly because Rios was on his way out to right field for the top of the sixth, Ventura hesitated before informing him that he was finished for the evening.
The truth is that Rios and others - most notably team captain Paul Konerko - have run half- to three-quarter speed to first base on routine grounders all season long. We can only assume that Ventura has done nothing about it. Possibly he set a tone during spring training. Maybe he has talked to individual players about extending a full effort all the time.
If he has, there has been no visible follow-through until the obvious situation on Friday when Rios' lackluster effort clearly prevented the Sox from taking the lead in a close game. Of course, I've never played on a major league ballclub, nor have I spent any time in the clubhouse. In the unlikely event that any player on the team is reading this, he no doubt would say, "This guy doesn't know what goes on. He hasn't been there. He doesn't know what we go through."
On the other hand, the guys in the dugout haven't sat where the fans sit. When you buy a ticket - regardless of the price - you expect to see your team try as hard as it can to perform up to its potential. No one enjoys seeing Alexei Ramirez boot a ground ball, but that's a whole lot different than not putting out 100 percent. We groan when Adam Dunn strikes out with runners on base, but rational folks don't criticize him for not trying. On Friday night, will and desire were the issues, not talent. We know Rios can play.
While guys like Rios and Konerko may not always run hard to first base, think about others like Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley, the two catchers who are battling for playing time and a future in the big leagues. Think they ever dog it down to first? Or Casper Wells, who pinch hit for Rios on Friday and made a game-saving catch on Sunday in the Sox's 3-1 victory. He's one of the last players on the roster. Check out his effort on a routine ground ball.
All of which questions whether the Sox - and other teams for that matter - practice a double standard. Chances are when a guy like Pete Rose played, teammates never considered giving anything but full throttle, knowing Rose would get in their face if they failed to hustle. With someone like Rose or Derek Jeter on the team, the manager has generous support when it comes to making sure that everyone is giving 100 percent. That's leadership, and you can only exert it if you practice it.
Without the benefit of inside knowledge, I always figured that A.J. Pierzynski helped fill that role for the White Sox. Jake Peavy, who got the win in Saturday's 10-6 triumph over the Braves, also would be a candidate. Finding out his honest reaction to the Rios' benching might shed some light on the Sox's disappointing season.
Gordon Beckham has the demeanor of someone who was born to play baseball. He plays hard. If he sticks around the South Side for a few more years, Beckham could assume the leadership role that the team may presently be lacking.
Did Rios and his teammates get the message? Possibly. Rios had one of his best games of the season on Saturday with three hits, a grand slam, and five RBI. Two more hits and a key RBI followed yesterday. The team was alive over the weekend, out-slugging the National League East leaders on Saturday before eking out Sunday's nail-biter.
"I'm here to play," Rios said on Saturday when asked if he expected to return to the lineup. "This is what I do."
All the fans are asking is that Rios and his teammates do it as well as physically possible. Every day. Every game. And every situation regardless of whether it's a routine ground ball or a double into the gap.
Rios and his teammates simply need to ask the same from themselves.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.
1. From Lloyd Rutzky:
Great article Roger, as usual. But Rios was not hit pinch hit for. Wells replaced him in RF in the top of the 7th so when Wells batted he was batting for himself. Apparently Robin didn't instantly react to the incident as Rios was already out on the field after having been tossed out at first, so maybe somebody brought him his glove before getting back to the dugout to face Robin. So Robin waited 'til between innings to explain to Rios.
It was definitely the right way to handle it - what Rios did WAS unacceptable, but Robin either had to think it over how to handle it, or did like I said, decided it was best to explain to Rios in the middle of the 6th why he was getting yanked and not make a big scene of it - ON THE FIELD.
Keep up the good work. You at least got the story a little closer to the truth as on Channel 7 they said he was immediately taken out, obviously incorrect.
Editor's Note: Corrected in the text, thanks.