Armando Ríos: Pan Am Games Silver Medalist, 2x NCAA Champion and Caribbean Series Hall of Famer

When Armando Ríos was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, September 13, 1971, few imagined he would represent his Island in the 1991 Pan American Games, in Havana, Cuba; help LSU Tigers win their first two NCAA Division I Baseball Titles in Omaha, Nebraska, 1991a and 1993; be a teammate of Barry Bonds with the 1998-2001 San Francisco Giants and of Roberto Alomar with the 2003 Chicago White Sox; have a long career in Puerto Rico’s Winter League; and, become one of the best players in Caribbean Series history with a .381 AVG and .649 SLG in five events.

Ríos spent his 1990 college Freshman season with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte 49ers. Ten baseball players from this university made it to MLB, including Ríos, reliever Bryan Harvey and LHP Chris Haney. Harvey (San Juan) and Haney (Mayagüez) pitched in Puerto Rico’s Winter League. Coincidentally, Haney’s father—Larry Haney—caught for the Santurce Crabbers (1966-68) when Earl Weaver managed Santurce. Ríos transferred to LSU for the 1991 collegiate season, a special campaign with the university’s first NCAA Division I baseball title.

LSU Tigers, 1991-93 and Team Puerto Rico, 1991 Pan Am Games

A Fall 1990 transfer from Charlotte to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was a wise move for Ríos. He played three seasons for coach Skip Bertman, 1991-93, including LSU’s first (1991) and second (1993) National Baseball Titles. The 1991 LSU Tigers were 55-18 overall, and 19-7 in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Six Tigers were drafted in the 1991 MLB draft after LSU defeated Wichita State, in the title game, 1991 College World Series (CWS). Three of LSU’s draftees were RHP Chad Ogea and RHP Paul Byrd (both by Cleveland); and OF Lyle Mouton, by the New York Yankees. MLB scouts were aware the SEC was a tough baseball conference. (The 1990 Georgia Bulldogs were the first SEC team to win an NCAA baseball crown.)

Ríos then helped Puerto Rico earn the Silver Medal at the 1991 Pan Am Games, in Havana, Cuba. Puerto Rico stunned the U.S.—managed by Ron Polk, the Mississippi State University coach—5-3, in the semi-finals. Undefeated (8-0) Cuba bested the Dominican Republic in the other semi-final game, before trouncing Puerto Rico, 18-3, in the title game. Team USA got the Bronze after a 2-1 win versus the Dominican Republic, in 15 innings. René Arocha, one of Cuba’s best amateur pitchers, pre-August 1991 Pan Am Games, had defected during a July 10, 1991 layover in Miami, Florida. But Cuba had LHP Jorge Valdés, LHP Omar Ajete, and an All-Star line-up with 1B Lourdes Gurriel Sr., 2B Antonio Pachecho, 3B Omar Linares, SS Germán Mesa, OF Víctor Mesa, among others.

The 1993 LSU baseball roster listed Ríos, #35, OF, 5’9” 158 lbs., SR., Carolina, Puerto Rico, Villa Fontana HS. Ríos was the lightest player. (Freshman IF Warren Morris was listed at 160 pounds.) And Ríos was the second shortest LSU Tiger, after 5’8” IF Jason Williams. Ríos developed a close friendship with Russ Johnson, the 5’10” 180 lb. Sophomore SS from Denham Springs, Louisiana. Size was not an issue for Bertman. He just wanted to win. And LSU won the SEC Western Division with an 18-8 mark, and were 53-17-1 overall. Ríos’ clutch two-run HR in the second inning propelled LSU to a 6-3 victory over Wichita State, at Omaha, Nebraska, 1993 CWS title game. Writers voted Ríos to the 1993 CWS All-Tournament Team. Six LSU Tigers were chosen in the 1993 MLB Draft, but Ríos was not among them. He later signed with San Francisco, as a 1994 undrafted free agent. “I have a special feeling toward LSU,” noted Ríos. “It’s actually an awesome feeling—my oldest daughter was born in Baton Rouge.”

U.S. Minor and Independent Leagues

Ríos played in 705 minor league games in nine seasons, excluding Long Island, 2005 Atlantic League, and Tijuana. In 2004, he played in Canada (Ottawa Lynx), Mexico (Tijuana Toros), and U.S. (Memphis Red Birds), all Class AAA clubs. The author saw Ríos play for the 1996-1997 Shreveport Captains, versus the Jackson Generals at Smith-Wills Stadium, Jackson, Mississippi. He hustled, ran well, had some power, and seemed like a potential big leaguer, in the Class AA Texas League. His 1996 slash line was .283/.365/.471, with an .836 OPS. He had 12 HR in 329 AB. In 1997, the slash line was .289/.370/.471, with an .841 OPS. Ríos hit 14 HR in 461 AB, and stole 17. Rios’ 1998 Class AAA season with the Fresno Grizzlies–.301 AVG, 26 HR, 103 RBIs—earned him a September call-up with San Francisco. His career minor league stats were: .294/.377/.462 slash line, with .839 OPS. Ríos hit 80 HR in 2,517 AB; drove in 435; stole 123.

MLB Career

Ríos recalled his first two MLB HR were at Dodger Stadium, in pinch-hitting roles. On Friday night, September 4, 1998, he pinch-hit in the seventh with one on, and homered off Darren Dreifort. The next day, he pinch-hit for Danny Darwin, eighth frame, and drilled a homer off Chan Ho Park! In 12 Giants’ games, he went four-for-seven, with two HR and three RBIs. His 1999 season with San Francisco featured 49 hits in 150 AB, seven HR, 29 RBIs, and .327 AVG. He was traded to Pittsburgh (late 2001), and concluded his MLB career with the 2003 Chicago White Sox. Ríos played in 419 MLB games, with 1,021 AB, 275 hits, 55 doubles, 8 triples, 36 HR, 167 RBIs, and a .269/.341/.445 slash line. He played at 180-185 pounds in the big leagues.

Puerto Rico Winter League and Mexican Pacific (Winter) League

He played for the Mayagüez Indios, 1994-95 to 1999-2000. His two best seasons were the first (.333 AVG) and last (.338 AVG). His only Caribbean Series with Mayagüez was February 1997, post-1996-97 regular season .260 AVG and zero HR in 127 AB. The Carolina Giants—who play home games at Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium—were Ríos’ other [Puerto Rico] team, 2002-05, 2006-07 and 2008-2011. He had a “Ty Cobb” type season at age 38, 2009-10, with 36 hits in 98 AB, a .367 AVG, .456 OBP and five SB. In 13 Puerto Rico seasons, he had 265 hits in 1,000 AB, for a .265 AVG, with 47 doubles, four triples, 14 HR, 116 RBIs, and 41 SB.

Ríos played three winter seasons for Mexico’s Guasave Cotton Growers, 2005-08. His stats were available for 2006-07 and 2007-08. (The team was runner-up in the 2005-06 finals.) In 2006-07, Ríos had a .264/.348/.461 slash line, with 10 HR and 31 RBIs, in 49 games, but returned to

Carolina toward season’s end, and represented the Island in the 2007 Caribbean Series. He was back with Guasave, 2007-08, when Puerto Rico’s season was suspended for financial reasons. Ríos shined with a .325/.378/.474 slash line; hit six HR; drove in 35; had eight SB; and played for Mexico in the February 2008 Caribbean Series.

Five Caribbean Series Events

Hermosillo, Mexico, hosted the February 4-9, 1997 Caribbean Series at Héctor Espino Stadium. Mayagüez started with two straight wins, but dropped four straight to finish 2-4. Aguilas del Cibao, Dominican Republic, won four of six, to win it. The Culiacán Tomato Growers (Mexico) and Magallanes Navigators (Venezuela) finished 3-3, one game ahead of Mayagüez. Ríos was the only Mayagüez player voted to the series All-Star Team (in CF). He hit four HR, a double, and single in 20 AB, for a .300 AVG and .950 SLG! Matt Stark, Culiacán DH, also hit four HR. Bobby Abreu, Magallanes, won the batting title at .588 (10-for-17). Chili Davis (Mayagüez) and Tony Armas (Magallanes) tied for most RBIs with six. Roberto Alomar’s four SB for Mayagüez led all players. Luis Sojo (Magallanes) was the All-Star shortstop (.478 AVG, .739 SLG).

Ríos reinforced Santurce for the 2000 Caribbean Series in Santo Domingo. He went eight-for-17, a .471 AVG; hit one HR with four RBIs; had a .824 SLG; and was chosen All-Star RF. Switch-hitters José Cruz Jr. (CF), second baseman José Vidro (.448 AVG), and shortstop Tony Valentín (.308 AVG) were solid switch-hitters. Eduardo Pérez (1B) batted .385. The team AVG was .368 (86 hits/234 AB), with a .427 OBP, .573 SLG, and 1.000 OPS! They scored 56 runs and won all six games, under Mako Oliveras, followed by 4-2 Aguilas Cibaeñas, managed by Tony Peña. The Mayos de Navojoa (Mexico) and Aguilas del Zulia (Venezuela) won one of six contests.

Carolina, Puerto Rico, hosted the 2007 tournament, February 2-7. Lino Rivera led these Giants, with catcher Yadier Molina, against the Aguilas Cibaeñas, Venezuela’s Aragua Tigers, and Hermosillo. Ríos went four-for-five in Game One against Hermosillo, with a triple, two runs, and two RBIs. This 11-1 win was followed by a 6-3 victory over Aragua. Ríos, Alex Cora, Juan González, and Luis Figueroa had two hits apiece for Carolina. But the Aguilas Cibaeñas shut out Carolina, 12-0, in the third game. Ríos was three-for-five in Game Four, a 4-2, 10-inning win over Hermosillo. Carolina then lost to Aragua, before a 1-0 win over Aguilas Cibaeñas, the series champs, at 5-1. Carolina finished second, 4-2, when Ríos scored the final run of the event, home ninth in a 1-0 win. Aragua was 2-4, with Hermosillo last at 1-5. Ríos, with a .545/.615/.682 slash line, and 1.297 OPS, was batting champ, OPS leader, and named to the All-Star Team for a third time. Teammates’ Juan González (DH) and Javier Valentín (1B) joined Ríos on this squad.

Ríos played for Mexico’s Yaquis de Obregón in the February 2-7, 2008 Caribbean Series, in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. Two Dominican teams participated due to Puerto Rico’s absence. The 5-1 Licey Tigers won their 10th Caribbean Series, half their Island’s 20 series titles through 2020. Nelson Cruz (.407 AVG, .630 SLG, 1.037 OPS) and led Licey’s hitters. The Aguilas Cibaeñas split six games; Ciudad Obregón finished 2-4, as did Venezuela’s Aragua Tigers. Ríos had his lowest Caribbean Series AVG of .273 (six-for-22) in this event. 

The fifth and final Caribbean Series for Ríos took place February 2-7, 2010, on Margarita Island, Venezuela. It was fitting that he reinforced Mayagüez. The 5-1 Escogido Lions were first, followed by 4-2 Mayagüez, 2-4 Hermosillo, and the 1-5 Caracas Lions. Ríos made the All-Star Team with five hits/16 AB, .313 AVG, two doubles, and three RBIs. His .3814 AVG—37-for-97—was in five Caribbean Series, with nine doubles, one triple, five HR, and .649 SLG!

2020 Caribbean Series Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

Puerto Rico Sports Museum, Guayanabo

The author attended the Thursday, February 6, 2020 Caribbean Series Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony with Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, at the “Museo del Deporte” (Sports Museum), Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Twelve were inducted; five connected to Puerto Rico, and seven to Venezuela’s Winter League. Buster Clarkson, Bob Thurman, and Roberto Vargas were honored posthumously. Vargas had the lowest ERA (2.01) in Phase I, 1949-1960, of Puerto Rican pitchers. Thurman’s .381 AVG (24 hits/63 AB) with Santurce is the highest of all Phase I players. Clarkson (1952-53) was the first player-manager to lead a team (Santurce Crabbers) to a Caribbean Series title.

Julio Valera and Armando Ríos

Ríos and pitcher Julio Valera were also inducted. Valera was undefeated (4-0) in Caribbean Series play with Mayagüez and Santurce, and reinforced Santurce, February 2000. Ríos mentioned (our February 6, 2020 interview) the intense rivalry between the Dominican team and Puerto Rico; “trash talking” which goes on; fans’ enthusiasm during the series; how much he loved the series competition; and his pride in representing Puerto Rico. A complete list of inductees, 1996-to-2020, is at: https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Caribbean_Baseball_Hall_of_Fame

Let’s compare Rios’ Phase II (1970-2020) Caribbean Series AVG and SLG to those of others. Ríos’ .3814 AVG in Phase II is second to Tany “Tony” Pérez’s .400, while Ríos’ .649 SLG is the BEST in Phase II, eclipsing Carmelo Martínez’s .589, David Ortiz’s .587, Tony Perez’s .576, and, Candy Maldonado’s .573. David Ortiz is the only Dominican in this quintet; Tony Pérez represented Puerto Rico, but is a native of Cuba. Carmelo Martínez and Candy Maldonado are from Puerto Rico. Wilmer Fields’s .679 SLG, Phase I, is higher than Ríos’ .649 in Phase II, but Ríos’ .649 SLG is higher than anyone else, besides Fields, Phase I or II. Willard Brown (.627), Roberto Clemente (.592), Bob Thurman (.587), and Héctor Rodríguez (.583) are below Ríos in SLG, for players with at least 50 plate appearances in a minimum of two Caribbean Series.

Ríos reinforced Santurce in the February 2000 Caribbean Series. They were 6-0 with a .368 team AVG, compared to Santurce’s February 1953 Caribbean Series champion (6-0) and .367 team AVG. When we compare Ríos (2000) to Thurman (1953), we find: Ríos had a .471 AVG (eight-for-17) and .824 SLG to Thurman’s .474 AVG (nine-for-19) and .684 SLG. Ríos’.3814 career Caribbean Series AVG (five events) is .0004 above Thurman’s .3810 career AVG (three events).

With special thanks and appreciation to Armando Ríos for his time/enthusiasm on February 6, 2020.  Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado for his friendship and facilitating Armando Ríos’ regular season hitting record, season-by-season, in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

Photo of Armando Rios as a player courtesy of Tomás Bosques

Other photos courtesy of Jorge Colón Delgado

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