The greatest baseball player to ever play in Edmonton might be the one who never played a single game in the major leagues: Omar Linares.
By Max Fawcett | March 31, 2020
Over the course of their 24 years in the Pacific Coast League, the Edmonton Trappers brought a lot of great players through town. There was Ron Kittle, who hit 50 home runs in 1982 (winning the PCL MVP in the process) and would go on to win the MLB Rookie of the Year Award the following year. There was Justin Morneau, the future American League MVP from New Westminster, B.C., who would help the Trappers win their last PCL championship in 2002. But the greatest of all to ever play in Edmonton might be the one who never played a single game in the major leagues: Omar Linares.
I got to see Linares in the summer of 1990, when my dad and I drove up from Vancouver to watch the debut of a theatrical adaption of his book, Cambodia, at the Fringe Festival. Linares wasn’t a big fan of Canadian theatre, mind you — instead, I saw him on the other side of the North Saskatchewan river at John Ducey Field, where he was a key part of the Cuban squad that was playing in — and utterly dominating — the 1990 World Baseball Cup. Growing up in Vancouver, I had watched a lot of minor league players come through my hometown, but I’d never seen anything like Linares, who fired line drives off (and over) the walls like it was the easiest thing in the world. The Cuban team would go on to win the tournament, and Linares posted an astonishing .512/.553/1.098 line — batting > average, on base percentage, slugging — over the 10 games they played, with six home runs and 18 runs batted in.
This wasn’t Linares’s first trip to Edmonton, either. He made his international debut as part of the Cuban senior national team at the 1985 Intercontinental Cup, where he slugged a mere .467 over the team’s nine games. All told, he would spend 20 years with Pinar del Río in Cuba’s Serie Nacional in a career that would see him post a .368 batting average (best all-time), hit 404 home runs (third all-time) and steal 264 bases. And as Rachel McDaniel noted in a 2018 piece for Baseball Prospectus, Major League Baseball scouts were believers in his talent. “Orrin Freeman, the Marlins’ director of international scouting, said in 1993 that Linares ‘could hit 30 homers, steal 50 bases and be a Gold Glover,’ and that he could do the same playing shortstop. ‘He could be the MVP here.’”
He almost had the chance to prove it, too. Linares swore he’d never play a game in the United States due to the ongoing tensions between the two countries, but there was a moment where it looked like he might be willing to play the 81 home games on Toronto’s schedule — and potentially replace Kelly Gruber as the team’s third baseman after the 1992 season. Linares was coming off one of his best seasons ever, in which he batted .393 and slugged .764 in Cuba and helped his country win an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona. But Linares decided to stay in Cuba — and Blue Jays fans had to settle for two consecutive World Series victories, which helps explain why so few people even know about their brief flirtation with perhaps the greatest player in the world at that time.
Fewer still probably know about Linares’s exploits in Edmonton. And as the memory of high-level baseball being played in Edmonton fades further into the distance, his story — and his unlikely connection to the city — is worth remembering. It’s one I’ll certainly never forget.
Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil and Vancouver magazines. He first moved to Edmonton in 2010 and came back in 2016 to work for the Alberta Climate Change Office. He was raised in the church of baseball and worships there to this day.
This article appears in the April 2020 issue of Avenue Edmonton