Omar Linares—who as recently as a few years ago was regarded by many scouts as the world's greatest third baseman—is finally getting to show his skills outside his native Cuba. Linares, 34, had for years resisted huge financial offers to defect and play in the U.S. major leagues. Now, at a point where he's probably just beyond his prime, he's one of five players that Fidel Castro's communist government has permitted to go to the Japanese leagues. For at least the remainder of this season, he'll play for the Chunichi Dragons.
Linares has more than 400 home runs and more than 2,000 hits during a 17-year career in Cuba's 16-team National Series league. His legend began when he started playing on the national team at age 17 and earned the nickname el Ni�o Prodigio de Vueltabajo ("the Prodigious Boy from Vueltabajo"). In 1985 the Blue Jays were so impressed that they offered him a unique contract: He would play only home games and so avoid traveling to the United States. By all indications a true believer in Cuba's communist system, Linares turned Toronto down, and because federal law forbids Cuban nationals from playing in the U.S., his brushes with American baseball have been limited. He played in the 1996 Olympics, in Atlanta, where he hit three home runs in Cuba's gold medal win over Japan, and in an exhibition game in Baltimore against the Orioles in '99. "I would rather play for 11 million people than $11 million," he once said. "[To defect] would be an act of treason. It will never happen."
Linares's trip to Japan is a particular snub to the U.S. and its promises of riches. He will earn just $4,000 a month playing for Chunichi—an undisclosed portion of which he will have to give to the Cuban government. "If he is making $4,000 a month, that means he will get $200 and Fidel Castro will get $3,800," Marlins closer Vladimir Nunez, who defected from Cuba in 1995, told The Miami Herald. "When you [are] making $7 a month playing baseball in Cuba, even $200 is a lot of money. But if he had come here, he would be making millions."