Brito has visited Cuba three times in the past six years. He names four Cubans as major league prospects: Linares, second baseman Antonio Pacheco, Mesa and righthanded pitcher Lazaro Valle, who sat out the entire Pan Am Games with a blood clot in his right arm. "It's unfortunate you haven't seen Valle," said Hammonds, who has seen him in other international competition. "He throws 96 miles an hour, even in the ninth inning, and his slider is up in the high 80s."
One Cuban who presumably will get a chance to test himself against the best is Rene Arocha, a 25-year-old pitcher who defected while touring the U.S. with the Cuban team last month but because of immigration restrictions cannot play ball in this country until next season. However, some scouts aren't that high on him, which certainly isn't the case with Linares, who is generally regarded as the country's best player. Linares, 23, has batted .366, with 201 home runs, over nine seasons in the National Series, Cuba's 16-team league, which Brito compares to AA ball in the U.S. He has surpassed .400 five times.
Linares's full nickname is el Ni�o Prodigio de Vueltabajo ("the Prodigious Boy from Vueltabajo"). But to the old men who gather each day under the catalpa trees in Havana's Central Park to talk and fret and argue about baseball, he is simply el Ni�o.
Linares was only 14 when he began playing in the National Series and 17 when he made his stunning debut with the Cuban national team, batting .410 in nine games in a 1985 tournament in Edmonton. The Toronto Blue Jays were so impressed that they offered him a unique contract: He would play only home games, thus avoiding travel to the United States. Linares, who has since been elected a deputy in the Poder Popular, Cuba's parliament, turned Toronto down.
The old men under the catalpa trees aren't sure they want to share el Ni�o with the world. One of them, Amable Morales, chooses his words carefully. "I would be pleased to see him play sometime against American teams," says the man, "but not full-time."
Linares, Brito believes, would need a little time in the minors. "But start him eating American food and working with weights, he can be a star," says Brito. "I just hope he doesn't wait too long."