BY MATT LaWELL
LANCASTER, California | Some time early during the summer of 1997, a young middle infielder named Rodney Linares played his first professional baseball game for the Gulf Coast League Tigers. Linares had just signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers and he wanted to play, he wanted to prove himself, so he traveled from the Dominican Republic to central Florida, where the team assigned him, six rungs from the Major Leagues, and sweated in the heat and humidity.
He batted .228.
The next summer, Linares played for the Gulf Coast League Astros, another team in the mentally challenging league where fans dot cavernous spring training stadiums and wins matter only as much as managers and team brass think they do. With rosters full of rookies, development on the field is more important than any number on the scoreboard. Still, a few numbers are important when that same team brass determines who to bring back, who to promote and who to cut loose. One number jumped off the page for Linares during a season of struggle.
He batted .079.
Linares had been 21 years old for less than a month and had already played his last professional baseball game.
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Born in Brooklyn, New York, and reared in the baseball haven of San Pedro de Macoris, Linares always wanted to play baseball. Why not? San Pedro de Macoris, a city of about 220,000 tucked along the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic, is the birthplace of dozens of Major Leaguers — 1981 World Series hero Pedro Guerrero, 1987 American League MVP George Bell, 1998 National League MVP Sammy Sosa, Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano, Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto and somewhere between 70 and 80 more, depending on who you trust.
Linares is not among them.
Neither is his father, Julio Linares, who played 15 seasons in the minors, most of the last five with the old Phoenix Giants of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Not long after Julio played his last game, almost four decades ago now, he transitioned to player development. He managed the Covington Astros for a season and the Gulf Coast League Astros for 14 seasons. He worked as the Houston Astros bench coach under manager Terry Collins for three seasons. For six seasons, he directed all operations for the Astros in the Dominican Republic. He is in his 70s now and he knows baseball.
In 1998, his last season as a manager, he shared the dugout with his son. Late in the season, around Labor Day, he handed his son a standard player evaluation form, the kind used by scouts, and asked him to evaluate himself.
“Go home and fill it out,” Linares remembers his father telling him. “I want you to grade yourself.”
Scouts use a system that runs from 20 to 80. If a player is a future star, most of the grades — for batting prowess and power and speed and defensive ability and arm strength — will land somewhere between 60 and 80. If a player is a future career minor leaguer, most of the grades will land somewhere between 20 and 40.
Most of Linares’ grades landed somewhere between 20 and 40.
He shook his head and told himself there was no way he was that bad, but he was.
“My dad was in the game so long,” he says, “and he said, ‘If you play, you can play to Double-A, but you won’t play in the Major Leagues. You don’t have it.
“‘But don’t quit. You have too much to offer.’”
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No matter the limitations and shortcomings he had on the field, some of them exacerbated by a pair of knee surgeries before he played a game and another pair during his short career, Linares did have tremendous knowledge about baseball. “One of the things that stood out was that the only thing that was above average was that I understood the game,” he says. “I was born into the game.”
He learned more during five seasons as a hitting coach and a scout in the Dominican Summer League, during a season as the infield coach for the Tri-City ValleyCats in the Low-A New York-Penn League, during two seasons as the hitting coach for the Lexington Legends in the Low-A Midwest League, during a stint as the manager of his hometown San Pedro de Macoris Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican Winter League. He learned and climbed higher than he ever did as a player.
And then, in 2007, a chance to manage and a team all his own.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “that was the year we had that really bad draft.”
Of the 38 players on the roster that season for the Greeneville Astros of the rookie Appalachian League, 14 never played another game for an affiliated team after Labor Day, all but 10 faded out within three years, and just three are on a roster this season. Exactly one has played in the Major Leagues.
“I remember calling my dad one night, and we were like 12-40,” Linares says. “I remember saying, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore.’”
“‘What are you talking about?’” he remembers his father asking.
“‘We can’t win.’”
“‘You don’t play the game. Teach the guys what they’re supposed to learn. Teach them the basics of baseball.’”
“‘I’m doing that.’”
“‘And I’ve heard you’re doing a good job.’”
The Astros finished that season with a 17-51 record. Linares managed the team the next two seasons, finished 30-36, then 27-40. He managed the Legends the two seasons after that, and finished 71-68, then 59-79.
This is his first season in the High-A California League. He is the youngest manager in the league by more than five years. Of the other 119 managers in High-A, Double-A, Triple-A and the Majors, only two are younger.
“I don’t want to be a big league coach,” Linares says. “I want to be a big league manager. We’ll see what happens in the next 10 years.”
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Years ago, before he managed one team, Linares helped groom an incredibly talented player. He was still in his teens then, a young player who figured he was bound for the Majors thanks to the San Pedro de Macoris pipeline.
“I was coming back from the season, and I see this kid cleaning his dad’s car,” Linares says. “I had this screen and I went out to hit, and he said, ‘I can hit better than you.’ I laughed. Here’s this kid, 12 years old. I say, ‘OK, come here and I’ll flip you some balls.’ I liked what I saw, so every day after practice, I would call him and flip him some balls.”
That went on until the kid, by then a developing player himself, left the Dominican Republic for three years. By the time he returned, Linares had started his second career as a coach.
“I would take him to the park every day, trying to get him faster, because he could hit,” Linares says. “I remember he said, ‘Three years down the road, I’m going to play in the big leagues.’”
“‘Playing in the big leagues is not that easy,’” Linares remembers saying.
“‘I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’m going to play in the big leagues in three years. If in three years, I’m not in the big leagues or close to the big leagues, I might as well quit.’”
“That shocked me. Here’s this kid, hasn’t even signed yet, and he’s talking about being in the big leagues.”
It took a few more years than planned, but that kid eventually made his Major League debut at 22. During the eight seasons since then, Robinson Cano has been one of the top middle infielders in the Majors.
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Linares likes to talk with his young players. He wants to make sure they know his “door is always open, even if it’s locked.” He wants to make sure they know the truth about where they stand, whether their skills will develop, whether they have a shot at the Major Leagues or, like him, a decade and a half ago, whether their future will more likely be a career in the minors. “We’re not trying to find what’s wrong,” he says. “We’re trying to fix what’s wrong. The answer is there, you just have to go back to the question.”
He threatened to walk out two times, one time when he managed a minor league team and he learned a player was hitting his girlfriend, one time when during winter ball he learned a player — a Major Leaguer, at that — was swilling vodka out of his water bottle. He didn’t need that around the rest of his team.
He has had to release players, has had players walk out and retire on him, young players who loved baseball, just not that much.
“There’s going to come a time when nobody’s going to care,” Linares says. “It’s hard when the game is over and the lights are off, and you’re at home. You ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I’ve seen it firsthand. They all tell you, ‘I’m going to get a job as a coach or something, because I can’t be away from it. It’s what I know.’”
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Linares is married now and has two sons, Steven, 11, and Ryan, 6 next month. Until last offseason, he had never watched Steven play a game. The kid had fielded grounders during spring training and summer vacations, had shagged fly balls, had hit in the cage, and he had definitely flashed something.
“He plays seven days a week,” Linares says, “practices two or three hours a day. My dad always said he wasn’t going to go see us because of the pressure, but I wanted to go see Steven play. As soon as he saw me, he said, ‘I’m going to get a base hit right now.’ He hit a single, stole second, stole third and scored on a wild pitch. ‘I told you I’m pretty good.’”
There are somewhere between 70 and 80 Major Leagues from San Pedro de Macoris, depending on who you trust. In another decade or so, Steven Linares might be part of that growing list.
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“You think they picked me out of the streets and told me to coach?” Linares ask. “I played the game.
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