It was a warm and muggy day in the fall of 2015 when Los Angeles Dodgers sixth round draft pick Edwin Rios decided to work out at the ESPN Wilde World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
By now, even the casual sports fan has heard of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. It currently is the home of the National Basketball Association's restart inside a bubble. It also is the home of Major League Soccer's "MLS is Back" World Cup style tournament. Thanks to the health and safety protocols implemented by both leagues, it also could be one of the safest places in the country from the COVID-19 virus.
Before it became known as the home of the NBA's bubble, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex was a secret training ground for many MLB and NFL athletes in the offseason.
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Tom Shaw hosts a performance training camp there in the Fall and Winter, and it has been frequented by MLB stars like Atlanta Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
Professional athletes from across different sports workout together during the camps at Disney World, and it provides a unique opportunity for athletes to congregate, network, and share training tips.
Rios, who played his college ball at nearby Florida International University, had heard of the camps before and decided to check it out. That decision would change his life.
"I was working out with Tom Shaw at Disney World, and Barry Larkin showed up with Dee Gordon, Willy Adames, and Francisco Lindor," said Rios. "I was like 'Holy Cow what are the chances I pick out this place to work out and Barry Larkin walks through the door?'"
Larkin played shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds from 1986 to 2004. He was a 12-time All-Star, a World Series Champion, and the National League MVP in 1995. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012, and the Reds retired his number 11 at Great America Ballpark later that year.
For Rios' it was quite the surprise to see Larkin roll up to Walt Disney World with some of the best players in baseball. However, for those that are familiar with Larkin's post-playing career, it was not that shocking.
Larkin has remained around the game of baseball since his retirement in 2004, and lives with his family in Orlando. He often invites many current players to come down and train with him in the offseason and famously has mentored two-time All-Star Dee Gordon of the Seattle Mariners and four-time All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians.
Rios believed that fate had brought Larkin to Disney World that day in 2015, and he hoped that if he was able to strike up a friendship with the Hall-of-Famer, that perhaps he too, could learn from his tutelage. As fate would have it, he did.
"Ever since that moment we kicked it off," said Rios. "He's taken me under his wing, and every time he opens his mouth I listen. He's a Hall-of-Famer, so you better listen. We've been going at it for a couple years now, and I'm starting to see the results now."
Larkin encouraged Rios to take up boxing in the offseason. Surprisingly, boxing is great training for baseball players looking for an alternative to weight training.
The best hitters in baseball have excellent hand-eye coordination, quick hands, unbelievable balance, torque, and a relaxed body. Hitters reaction time and anticipation is faster than the average person, and the same principles are inherent in boxing.
In order to throw the perfect punch, a fighter must have unbelievable balance and torque. In the ring, a boxer must have a pristine center of gravity in order to unleash a punch at a moving target. If a boxer is unbalanced, his punch will not pack much force, and he puts himself in a weakened position for a counter punch from his opponent.
In order to avoid this, a boxer must be perfectly balanced, rotate the hips, and turn the back foot in order to maximize the force and power behind the punch. Similarly, a hitter in baseball throws out his hands, rotates his hips, and turns his back foot in an almost identical motion to a boxer delivering a knockout punch.
"I was a little skeptical at first," said Rios of Larkin's suggestion to take up boxing. "But it's crazy what boxing does not just for the body, but for the mind as well."
Ironically, another famous Dodgers' first baseman who is also a left-handed power hitter like Rios, also participates in boxing training in the offseason.
Former Dodger Adrian Gonzalez, who was a five-time All-Star himself, swears by boxing. He famously trains at Wild Card Boxing in Hollywood, the gym of Hall-of-Fame trainer Freddie Roach.
Instead of lifting weights in the offseason, Gonzalez would box five times a week. The former slugger who hit 317 career home runs claims that boxing helped strengthen his core, back, and shoulder muscles, all vital areas for hitters.
It's tough to argue with the logic, especially after Rios' hot-start to the 2020 MLB season. Rios began boxing with Larkin in 2018, but said that their training sessions intensified in Florida during the five-month quarantine period between March and July when baseball was postponed.
During that time, Rios said he would box with Larkin three-to-four times a week, and began to notice significant changes to his body and hand-eye-coordination.
"I did a lot of boxing with Barry Larkin during quarantine," said Rios. "That's where I saw my body transform and get cut up a little more."
The results speak for themselves. In limited action, Rios has three home runs, five RBI, and four runs scored in just 16 at-bats. He has only four hits, but three of them are home runs and the other is a double. His success at the plate so far has caught the attention of Dodgers manager Dave Roberts who is now looking for places to put Rios in the lineup.
So far, Rios has started at first base, third base, and DH. He's even pinch-hit late in games four separate times already. One of those pinch-hitting appearances came against the hated Houston Astros in extra innings. After he struck out to start the 11th inning, Rios hit the first-ever two-run home run to leadoff an inning in Dodgers franchise history. Thanks to the new MLB extra-innings rules that starts with a runner on second base, his two-run home run to lead off the top of the 13th inning proved to be the game-winner, and completed a two-game sweep of the Astros.
Rios says that he will continue lean upon Larkin for advice and guidance throughout the season, and will also maintain their boxing training in the offseason. Despite the fact that Rios is three inches taller, 40 pounds heavier, and has a longer reach than Larkin, the 26-year-old from Puerto Rico says that the 56-year-old Larkin still beats him in the ring every time.
"I still got a ways to go," said Rios smiling.