Cuba is sugar, tobacco, rum, music, dancing, incredible beaches, classic cars… and one of the best baseball in the world. With this article about Omar Linares we start chronicles from the stands. A small tour through this fascinating baseball world that is, like soccer, a lot more complex than we can ever imagine.
“Would you have shone in the Major Leagues?“
The reporter asks with a provocative half smile. He knows the answer. It’s a cliché. The bright star, for many, the best and most brilliant of all throughout the Cuban National Series, will reply smiling back, with an absolute confidence, and with a certain air of superiority.
“Would you have shone in the Major Leagues?“
Instead of a smile, there is some sort of nostalgia, a shadow of a doubt, a timid reflection:
You cannot predict that, you would have to consider the moment and how you adapt to the game system. Cuban players have shown that good results are possible, and that they can adapt, because the quality has always been there.Omar Linares (Swing Completo. Daniel de Malas. Interview to Omar Linares. 2.11.2019).
For sure, those of us who have lived the frenzy of a baseball game, those who have followed, inning after inning, game after game, the awesome stories of our National Series, would have replied to the question with a choir:
“Yes, he would have shone!! Yes, he would have gone the extra mile!! Yes, his name would be acclaimed to be included in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown!!“
No one will ever know. El Niño (the best and the brightest) did not play in the Major Leagues for a unique and simple reason: because he always said “NO” to the scouts’ offers from the MLB (Major League Baseball) that approached him at every international game he participated with the Cuban National team. And those offers were many!!
Omar “El Niño” Linares
Omar Linares Izquierdo was born on October 23, 1968, in San Juan y Martínez, Pinar del Río. At the same place where the finest and best known tobacco of the world is grown, and where the famous Hoyo de Monterrey plantations are located.
His father, Fidel Linares, had been an important figure of the Pinar del Río baseball during the foundational years of our National Series. He even played at the opening game of that new stage of the Cuban baseball in 1962.
Some say it’s in the genes. The old Linares was famous for his polite treatment to all: friends and foes, public and press, and was also famous for an almost exasperating humbleness. What he could not help was the light in his eyes when he talked about his son Omar. The regional baseball authorities asked his permission to include El Niño (The Kid) in the Vegueros team, his very own team, one of the four greatest teams of the National Series. Omar had just turned 15 years old.
That’s how El Niño Linares’ story began. A story of twenty series throughout which he achieved, in 15 consecutive series, an almost unbeatable record of hitting over 300, and, on 8 of those, hitting over 400.
A unique and simple reason?
January 1959. A profound transformation of structures began in Cuba. Matters of politics and economy take the lead, but there is also a change in the praxis of thinking, in social values, aesthetics and in the critical vision of the surrounding world.
Sports was part of those transformations. The idea that “sports is a right of the people” had two equally long and complex pathways. On one hand, sports competitions were for free, even those of international character, the most spectacular and the most expected. And on the other, practicing sports became an important part of the integral formation of men and women.
“Professional” sports, turned into a trade, was seen as a deformity of principles under which Sports was conceived almost at the beginning of great western civilizations.
That was not only the belief of a group of Cuban revolutionaries. The President of the International Olympic Committee was Avery Brundage at the time. He was an American Olympic athlete that stood out during the second decade of the 20 century. During his term, he set a principle standard that established very clear limits:
Sports is recreation, is a hobby or an amusement, a game, an activity to relax. Sports is free, spontaneous and jubilant… is the opposite of work. Paid athletes are not sports men, they are workers or employees.Avery Brundage. “The Olympic Movement”
Nothing more similar to the Freudian antimony that opposes “working” to “playing”.
What’s the point of this philosophical digression? The fact is that dismantling the whole professional sports structure in Cuba (even when only baseball and boxing were considered professional sports) produced a radical change in the way sports was perceived and thought about here.
In the early 60s, it seemed that Cubans’ huge passion for their baseball, organized by the Cuban Professional League of four teams (full of Americans, Venezuelans, and Puerto Ricans) and those eternal rival teams Habana and Almendares, red and blue, that destroyed friendships, families and marriages, could not be replaced, even with the “right for the people” proclaim.
The excitement of that first televised live transmission of the World Series from the United States, the Washington Senators, where Willy Miranda played, the Orestes Miñoso’s Chicago White Sox and a long list of teams with other national idols; the Cuban Sugar Kings at the Triple A (also with American, Venezuelan and other players from different nationalities); the Milwaukee Bravos beating the invincible New York Yankees; it seemed that all of that could never be replaced by gathering some guys (amateurs, of course), unknown and from many strange lands also unknown to most of their fans (like the birthplace of Fidel Linares Rodríguez, El Niño’s father).
And yet one day, even without realizing, it was no longer important if Mickey Mantle broke Babe Ruth’s record, if the Dodgers were not from Brooklyn, but from Los Angeles, or if the Bravos were from Atlanta and not from Milwaukee.
Other names started to be part of that frenzy passion: Urbano González and Andrés Telemaco hung around second base, as Manuel Alarcón and Alfredo Street were in the box. Antonio “Ñico” Hernández, the great Miguel Cuevas and Wilfredo Sánchez (first of a long list of Sánchez) “devoured” the fields for several decades.
It happened in such a way that, during the fabulous 80s and 90s, dozens of new and true idols emerged from the crowds in all stadiums of the country; no more surprises. Agustín Marquetti, Orestes Kindelán (el Tambor Mayor – the Major Drum), Antonio Pacheco (el Capitán de Capitanes – the Captain of Captains), Luis Giraldo Casanova (el Señor Pelotero – Mr. Ball Player), Víctor Mesa (la Explosión Naranja – the Orange Explosion), Pedro Luis Lazo (el Rascacielos Pinareño – the Skyscraper from Pinar del Río), Ariel Pestano… and, of course, the brightest, Omar Linares (El Niño – the Kid).
No final of the World Series (not even those with Orlando El Duke playing with the Yankees or the White Sox) could overshadow the passion of a game between Industriales and Santiago, even less at the plays-off, and least to say, a game at the finals.
The protagonists of this national love story are many. The elite of the elites of this all-stars constellation is formed by several dozen baseball players. Their names and their families are all over the Cuban territory. It is as if Michael Jordan had been born in Yateras, Cristiano Ronaldo in downtown Vedado, Floyd Mayweather in Sierra de Cubitas, and Usain Bolt in Placetas.
The scouts and the MLB
Games were multiplied by the dozen. The guys from all saround Cuba saw all the worlds. World championships, Pan-American, Centro American, regional games, Olympics, exhibition games.
As it happened before at the Caribbean Series (professional), Cuba was undefeated. Many of those young amateurs reached the headlines. Some became legends. The press followed everywhere and harassed them many times, always connecting sports to politics. They were also chased by talent scouts who knew their trade too well. The offers were, at least, seven figures.
Of course an athlete of such skills and quality would want to test himself in the best arena. What kind of player wouldn’t want to try in the most demanding scenario?
Yet, there were also the principles of the Olympic Games, the joy and the freedom of sports that were linked to the making of a new man.
And then, in every athlete’s heart, as in every “Latino” (estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, the largest baseball facility in Cuba, home of the Industriales) fan or any other stadium of any province, there was the bitter rule establishing that, to play at the MLB or ever getting closer to the grounds, they would have to quit their sports links to Cuba.
The list of those refusing such offers is rather long. But no story has been told so much as that of El Niño Linares. His several NOs have multiple versions. The most amusing is the story of a scout that, after offering, one after the other, increasing amounts of money, did not manage to convince El Niño. So he decided to give him the famous “blank check” trying to get his signature.
Of course it’s a story told a thousand times, about many athletes, in many sports, in many countries. And it might not be true. But what perpetuates the legend is not exactly the truth in it, but what people think it might be true. The story of the great is always full of these possible truths.
Linares’ career had concluded when the MLB decided to organize the First Baseball World Classic, an event where the best ball players of the world would represent their countries. And, of course, those who played in the big leagues would also participate.
However, a golden test came up when the Cuban national baseball team played the Baltimore Orioles in two exhibition games. In the home game, at the Latino, Linares batted in the tie run for Cuba, and in the Cuban victory at the Oriole Park in Camden Yards, he batted no less than four hits to big-league pitchers.
The baseball jersey number 10
El Yuli was 18 years old then. He is a passionate fan of El Niño. Like El Niño, he plays third base, and uses number 10 in his uniform, same number the “pinareño” used during 20 National Series and in all international events with the Cuban team.
Barely a year later, this young man from Sancti Spíritus wore that t-shirt during the Pan-American Games of Santo Domingo. In the First World Classic, three years later, he played second base. ESPN commentators called him “the phenomenon”, and he was selected, among so many ball players in the major leagues, to be part of the All- Stars Game.
The most followed and polemic ball player of all times surprised everyone by wearing, after many agreements and disagreements, the well-known media uniform of Industriales, the team of the Capital. In the last series he played in Cuba, he became the leader of hitters with the impossible average of 500.
Now he plays with the Houston Astros of the MLB. He had a relevant role in the win of their team over the Dodgers of Los Angeles in the finals of the 2017 World Series. He has a contract for five years of about 50 million dollars.
Comparisons are inevitable. Yuli has never been carried away by them. He continues thinking, and declaring, that Omar Linares is a major name in the Cuban baseball. It’s the same to El Niño. In the interview we started with he said, with honest admiration:
I don’t like comparisons, the time Yulieski played was very beautiful and he seized it very well. He is one of the best hitters Cuba has ever produced.Omar Linares.
In November 2014, Omar Linares was included in the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame. Among the thousand baseball players that participated in the 52 National Series that happened since then, El Niño took the following places:
1rst in Runs Scored (1547)
- 1rst in Slugging (644).
- 2nd in Walks (1327).
- 2nd in Batting Average (368).
- 2nd in Total Bases (3842).
- 3rd in Hits (2195).
- 3rd in Home Runs (404).
- 5th in Runs Batted In (1221).
- 9th in Stolen Bases (246).
- 9th in Two Bases Hit (327).
Till today, he is still the youngest baseball player in National Series (15 years old), in playing as a regular in the Cuban team (18 years old), in reaching 100, 200, 300, 400 home runs, and in having 1000 runs batted in and 1000 runs scored.
Other Legends of Cuban Baseball Say
Since I participated in the World Youth of 1982 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, I was interested in knowing the kind of baseball that was played outside the island, particularly in the Major Leagues (…) the best players of this sports in the world are in the MLB. I would have liked to play at that level, because I think I had the quality to do it just fine.Orestes Kindelán.
We were lucky to play with McGuire, Barry Bonds, Robin Ventura…I don’t say we could become stars, if they were stars and we could beat them, and, if then, I could be champion bat there, I think I could have made it (…) I don’t want to be controversial, but sometimes it’s said that this guy who played in the major leagues is better than this one or that other in Cuba… that is yet to be seen. The only thing people of the major leagues have that we don’t is money. But there is a lot of quality in Cuba. I’ve seen ball players here (in the US) that were second, third rate players in Cuba, playing regular in the Major Leagues.Víctor Mesa.
That is the aspiration of any ball player, to participate in the strongest competition there is in the world of baseball (…) like most Cuban athletes, I also had offers to leave my country, but I did not want to do it that way (…) there are many retired ball players in Cuba that, had they wanted, they would have become stars in the Major Leagues and would have become millionaires…Ariel Pestano.