By: Bob Elliott
CARY, N.C. _ All four teams in the Americas Baseball Festival were in action at the same time on Wednesday.
Who was the best prospect on the diamonds at the USA National Training Center’s Coleman Field?
Lefty A.J. Puk of the Florida Gators of the USA collegians?
Right-hander Jake Thompson of the USA Pan Am team?
Right-hander Yander Morales of Cuba’s national team?
Or left fielder Tyler O’Neill of Team Canada?
While Puk headed off to summer ball, Thompson, Morales, O’Neill and their teammates shared a 737 Miami Air charter to Toronto for the start of the Pan Am Games Saturday night in Ajax.
Yet, we’ll wager a Diet Coke on the two players who had the best careers.
Canadian coach Larry Walker, winner of two National League batting titles, and an MVP, whose career numbers compare to Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio’s according to baseball-reference, would be No. 1.
And No. 2 would be Omar Linares, a coach with Cuba.
Linares was regarded as the best player not in the majors for a decade beginning in the late 1980s.
The starting third baseman on Cuba’s world cup championship teams in 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2001, Linares also won Olympic gold in 1992 and 1996, playing 20 years in all.
Linares was so good both the Montreal Expos and the Toronto Blue Jays wanted to sign him in the early 1990s -- due to Canada’s strong relations with Cuba. They wanted him to ONLY play home games, since a Cuban national could not work in the U.S.
“That was a long time ago, I don’t remember all the details, but the team could not come to an agreement with our government,” said Linares Wednesday with the aid of an interpreter.
“I do remember talking to Preston Gomez about it,” Linares said.
Preston Gomez? We don’t recall Gomez working for the Jays.
However, Jays manager Cito Gaston and Gomez, his manager with the San Diego Padres, were close friends.
At 14, Linares entered the international scene playing second against 18-year-olds as Cuba won the 1982 World Juniors in Barquismeto, Ven.
“I have been to Canada many times and each time was a great experience, tournaments were well-organized, people were very friendly and they knew baseball every city we went,” said Linares, who rhymed off all the competitions and cities he had visited.
He was at Kindersley, Sask. in 1984 when Cuba won the Juniors, Edmonton to win the 1985 Intercontinental Cup, Edminton in 1995 for Atlanta Olympics qualifier (Cuba made it, as did Nicaragua, whose late rally against Eric Gagne beat Canada) and Winnipeg in 1999 for the Pan Am Games.
Linares hit a three-run homer in the bronze medal game as Cuba beat Canada 3-2 in 1999.
After Cuba played Canada Wednesday, Linares was headed to Havana. He won’t be making the visit to Toronto.
We first met Linares in the spring of 1993 pool side in Camaguey, Cuba since boss Mike Simpson thought it would be a good idea to explore the final frontier: Cuba.
Back then there were few Cuban defectors. Russians had emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. Katarina Witt had an agent.
Asked then about signing with the Jays Linares said “All I know is that the Toronto team is the professional champion of the world and Cuba is the amateur champion of the Olympics.”
The best major-leaguers made between $5 and $6 million a year in 1993. Linares made 209 Cuban pesos a month. A peso was worth 48 cents.
After our talk at the Hotel Camaguey pool deck, with interpreter Alina Rodriquez translating to English, press secretary Olga Lopez said in Spanish: “Omar said he would like to dedicate a home run to us tonight.”
Linares shook his head “No, no, no, I didn’t say that.”
After Linares and his Occidentales Lions beat the Centralles Wasps 11-8 at Estadio Candido Gonzalez in the first game of the doubleheader, Lopez took us onto the field.
Lopez chided Linares about not delivering the home run SHE had promised.
“Still nine innings left,” said Linares.
Centralles was up 4-0 in the sixth when Linares connected with his aluminum Easton Slugger. The ball cleared the fence, travelling roughly 390 feet away in left centre.
Crossing home plate Linares spotted the three of us sitting in the sunken seats -- the kind you see at Dodger Stadium -- and pointed. He had delivered.
Am not really sure how many home runs I have seen since Tom Grieve homered for the New York Mets opening day 1978 at Olympic Stadium, yet only one player has ever crossed the plate and pointed at me.
We asked Omar Minaya, then of the Texas Rangers how he would describe Linares to someone who had never seen him.
“Think George Bell’s 1987 MVP year, he’s that kind of player with the bat, except instead of being an outfielder he’s at third. And he fields and steal bases.
“He’s a guy scouts drool over when they see him for the first time. He is a franchise player.”
The former franchise player worked the radar gun on Wednesday wearing the only colors he has ever worn: red, blue and white.
Linares had the second best career behind Walker of any player on the four teams. It a shame only Western Canada saw him in his prime.