A discussion with Danny Rios might start out about baseball, but soon enough talk will turn from the merits of a backdoor slider on a 2-2 count to the geopolitical situation in Latin America or the subprime housing crisis in the United States.
Rios, a 35-year-old right-handed starter entering his first season with the Yakult Swallows, is a man of the world. The Tony Danza look-alike was born in Spain to Cuban parents, moved to Miami when he was a toddler, and has played professional baseball in the United States, Mexico, South Korea and now Japan.
"My dad left Cuba in '67 and my mom in 1970," said Rios, whose folks fled the Castro regime. "They met in Spain. Back then a lot of Cubans took flights to Madrid or Mexico, and from there you'd go to Venezuela, Panama, Puerto Rico and a lot of people would try to work their way up to the States."
Which is what Rios' parents did, settling, like many others from Cuba, in southern Florida.
"I was only in Spain for one year," Rios explained. "My entry visa to the U.S. actually said 'nationality: none' until I became a citizen at 16 or 17."
After a stint with the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals in 1997-98, where he went 0-1 with a combined 9.31 ERA over seven career MLB games, Rios has spent the past six seasons playing in South Korea and the Swallows are hoping that a familiar formula will produce similar results. Last season, Yakult signed American right-hander Seth Greisinger away from the KBO's Kia Tigers, a move that paid off in spades when he won a Central League-best 16 games and posted an ERA of 2.84.
When Greisinger bolted for the big-spending Giants in the offseason, the club turned once again to Korea and came up with Rios, the 2007 KBO MVP who won a remarkable 22 games last season with a 2.07 ERA for the Doosan Bears. Rios, in fact, posted double-digits in wins in each of his six years in Korea, mixing an effective slider and changeup in with his 150-kph four-seam fastball.
"I told Seth, 'Thanks for opening the road over here,'" said Rios, who had been hoping for a chance to play in Japan. "I was over there (in Korea) for six years and I heard it all--'not enough big-league experience, you don't pitch inside enough,' and that was the year I hit 28 guys... I hit 28 guys, how can I not pitch inside? 'We need to sign a big-name guy,' I've heard it all."
But Rios also knew that playing that long in South Korea would have its advantages.
"I was hoping one of the things that would work in my favor (in trying to land a job in NPB) was playing in Asia, because you have a lot of guys (from the United States) not able to make the adjustment mentally, emotionally."
So far, Rios seems to be adjusting pretty well to Japanese baseball. On Monday, he struck out seven in six innings, giving up just one run on a bases-loaded balk in a preseason 2-2 saw-off with the Hiroshima Carp.
The Swallows will need a decent season out of Rios if they hope to climb out of the CL cellar this year. After finishing last with a 60-84 record in 2007, the club not only lost its top starter, but three other veteran pitchers also left the fold: starters Kazuhisa Ishii, Shugo Fujii and closer Shingo Takatsu all bade farewell to Jingu in the offseason.
The team had a potent offense led by Norichika Aoki, who always seems to be good for about 200 hits a year, RBI machine Alex Ramirez and Canadian slugger Aaron Guiel, who finished runner-up in the CL home-run derby with 35. While Ramirez has joined Greisinger across town with the Giants, the other two are back. New manager Shigeru Takada just needs some quality pitching to supplement the club's ample offense.
"As long as they put me in the top three and give me a chance to pitch, I know I can stay there," said Rios, whose contract will pay him 104.5 million yen this season with an option for 2009. "If they ask me to start (Opening Day), I'll be ready. If not, it's not the end of the world, we've got 143 games left.
"My goal is to stay healthy and pitch deep into games, that way the team has a chance. We have a young pitching staff so hopefully my work ethic and things like that will rub off on the young guys. When you lose four guys you've got to spread it around, we need everyone to come together."
While this is Rios' first season playing in Japan, he has been here before. His Korean club Doosan had its training camp near a small fishing village on Kyushu, where Rios was forced to develop an appreciation for seafood.
"The last two years I had spring training in Japan with my Korean team in a town of 3,000 people called Tsukumi," recalled Rios. "We ate tuna, tuna steaks, tuna sashimi, tuna balls, tuna shabu-shabu and cow tongue, and that was it. It was a tuna town, tuna and cement."
On that note, the Swallows are hoping that the well-traveled Rios will be able to solidify their pitching staff in 2008.