The offseason of 1992-93 was a weird time for the Blue Jays. They had, obviously, just won a World Series, so things were on the whole looking pretty sunny. At the same time, they were losing many of the players who had made that World Series victory possible: Gone were Jimmy Key, Dave Winfield, Tom Henke, and David Cone. For the Jays to repeat as World Series champions, they needed to add impact players to fill those newly-created gaps in their roster.
We all know about the notable players they did end up signing that offseason en route to their second victory in a row, namely Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart, both highly-regarded veterans by that point. But the Jays were also looking to make a different kind of splash in their lineup by signing the top amateur player in the world, Omar Linares—a 25-year-old Cuban third baseman, a perennial champion in international competition, heralded as a sure-fire major-league star if only he would defect.
The Jays, like most other teams, had been eyeing Omar Linares for a long time. The son of a notable Cuban ballplayer, Linares began playing for Cuba’s junior national team at the tender age of 14, advancing to the senior team at 17 after batting .511 with eight homers at the Junior World Cup. He proceeded to light up international competition every time he took the field: .467 in his senior debut at the Intercontinental Cup, .457 in his first World Cup, .520 at the Pan-Am Games in 1987. His defense at third was strong enough that pro scouts considered him capable of being a plus defender at shortstop. Articles from the time describe scouts “drooling” over Linares and his Cuban teammates, in the midst of an era of near-total Cuban domination in international baseball competition. One article claims that “at least half a dozen” teams had already tried to entice Linares into signing, despite the fact that he was only 19 years old and despite the embargo.
Linares wouldn’t bite, not even at the urging of the Cuban-American National Foundation, who appeared at the Pan-Am Games to pass out leaflets encouraging defection and at one point got into a “scuffle” with Cuban team officials in an attempt to come into closer contact with the players. “I have no interest in playing in the major leagues or for any team in the United States,” Linares told reporters at the Games.
For the Jays, this statement left enough ambiguity—they are, after all, not a team in the United States—that they continued to keep serious tabs on Linares. And after Kelly Gruber, their incumbent third baseman, was traded to the Angels for Luis Sojo in December of 1992, they began to think more seriously about scenarios in which they could lure Linares to Canada. Linares was perhaps even more impressive in 1992 than he had been in 1987: That season he had been the batting champion in both the Cuban National Series and the Selective Series, posting a cumulative .393 average with a .764 slugging percentage, and had led the Cuban team to an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona. Linares’ stock was as high as it had ever been, and the Jays now had third base conveniently empty.
MLB, in accordance with American policy, strictly forbade teams having any contact whatsoever with individual Cuban players or with Cuban teams more generally. The Blue Jays felt they might have a loophole to exploit: the fact that they were a team located in Canada, owned by a Canadian company. Canada’s relationship with Cuba was a friendly one. There was nothing in Canadian law that would prevent the Jays from interacting with Linares, dealing with Cuban teams, or hypothetically signing him. The Jays front office, with these considerations in mind, began to formulate a plan: If they could convince Linares to play for the Jays, they could find their way around United States law by having him play only at the SkyDome. He would not be with the team during spring training; he would not go with the team on any road trips. Linares would be a legally bound Toronto-only player—an unprecedented circumstance in modern baseball history, if not in baseball history as a whole.
Reading about this now, the whole plan seems a little crazy. How valuable did the Jays think Linares was for them to go to all this trouble, just for the possibility that he would play for them only half the time? How would this plan work if the Jays were to play in the postseason against anyone other than the Expos? Would Linares simply have to sit and wait in Toronto while the Jays played in Game 7 of the World Series if that game were played in the United States? How could one player possibly be worth that much?
The consensus on Linares, though, was that he was indeed that valuable—that he would easily be the best player on any major league team. 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,” Freeman said. “There just aren’t players like that.” In another article, anonymous sources within the Jays organization are quoted as saying that Kelly Gruber “couldn’t hold Linares’s jockstrap,” and that Linares would be the Jays’ best player immediately if they were to sign him. “Not even Roberto Alomar is in his class,” the source said. If the Jays’ gambit were to pay off, then—and it was a big “if,” given Linares’ avowed intention not to play in the major leagues—they could potentially have the best player in baseball not only playing for their team, but legally unable to play for any other team. They would have no risk of losing him to free agency; no team would ever ask for him as part of a trade package.
Predictably, when the Jays brought this plan to MLB, it was immediately shot down. Both Jays management and the office of the Commissioner placed a ban on any discussion of the finer details of the Jays’ proposal and the specific reasons that it was denied. But one can assume two major rationales for the failure of the Jays’ plan. There was no way that the powers that be in baseball would allow the Jays to have such a competitive advantage over the 28 American teams—if this situation was permitted, the door would conceivably be open for other Cuban players with major-league aspirations to become Canada-only players, not just in Toronto but in Montreal. More importantly, one can’t imagine MLB risking any legal repercussions—or even just the slightest hint of legal tension—with the American government. While the Jays’ plan wasn’t illegal, it definitely wasn’t in the spirit of the American trade embargo.
And so the Jays’ creative ploy came to a fairly predictable conclusion. Not only were they disallowed from signing Linares to a Toronto-only deal, they had to provide MLB with assurances that they were not sending scouts to Cuba to evaluate Linares, or contacting him in any way. (I don’t think anyone really believed this—all the media reports at the time suggest that Linares was consistently being scouted by a number of teams.) The outcome might have been disappointing for the Jays, but the idea of signing a player who is legally obligated to only play in home games was always far-fetched.
But there was yet another complicating factor in this situation—not a complicating factor that ended up impacting the Jays directly, but one that certainly affected the public discourse surrounding their attempts to sign Linares. In complying with MLB’s injunction not to engage with Cuban teams and not actively try to sign Linares, the Jays were technically acting contrary to Canadian law. Federal legislation introduced in 1991 forbade Canadian businesses and American branch-plants in Canada from complying with American laws limiting their operations.
At the time news broke of the Jays’ failed designs on Linares, this legislation was recent enough to be fresh in people’s minds, and Canadians are always particularly sensitive to anything that suggests the encroachment of American interests in Canadian affairs. Editorials from the time, then, took perceived threat to Canadian sovereignty that the Jays’ acquiescence posed very seriously. “To Labatt Breweries, owners of the Toronto Blue Jays, the SkyDome is American soil where U.S. law overrides Canadian law,” one editorial says, before accusing the Jays of being traitors to Canada in some way: “A real Canadian baseball team, of course, would be more interested in getting the best players than in toadying to America’s Cold War paranoia.”The piece closes with a warning to consider “where the team’s loyalties truly lie” before choosing to root for them in the upcoming season. Another editorial calls MLB’s opposition to the Jays’ plan “offensive to Canadian sovereignty,” and yet another notes that “the fact the Blue Jays acquiesced to MLB’s decision means the team’s directors could be liable to up to five years in prison.” The small drama playing out between a Canadian baseball team trying to exploit the laws of their home country for competitive advantage became a venue for the ongoing, larger drama of Canadian sovereignty and American influence.
At the end of the day, obviously, nothing came of any of this. Linares continued to be legendarily great in Cuba for another decade before closing out his playing career in Japan. He was always openly devoted to the Cuban national baseball program, and it seems highly unlikely that he would have agreed to the deal the Jays wanted to make with him. The Jays’ top brass didn’t go to prison for their apparent violation of Canadian economic policy, and the team went on to win the 1993 World Series without Linares’ help. I don’t think this incident is widely remembered, and if it is, I doubt it is remembered as an important moment in the history of Canadian sovereignty. It’s more of an oddity, one of the many instances of baseball teams trying their level best to exploit whatever they can to get an edge on the competition, and a reminder of the still-contentious relationship between the United States and Cuba—one that often requires Cuban baseball players to risk their lives in order to play in the major leagues.
Lead Photo © Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
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