When Rodney Linares returns to Miami for the World Baseball Classic next month, he has some idea what awaits him.
Linares was in the stands six years ago when the Dominican Republic rallied from a 5-0 deficit to beat Team USA, the seismic moment coming in the eighth inning when Nelson Cruz hit a go-ahead three-run home run off U.S. relief ace Andrew Miller to set off the delirium among the Dominican fans who packed the stadium.
“Most amazing thing ever,” Linares said. “I thought the roof was going to crack.”
This time, Linares will return to the WBC not as spectator, but wearing the red, white and blue colors of Dominicana as the team’s manager.
“I envision how it’s going to be,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to be like 10 times bigger than what I’m envisioning. Like an all-star game. Like double the excitement, especially when you’re gonna go play teams like Puerto Rico and Venezuela, and go to the second round and play U.S. or Japan, whoever we play.
“We’re in it together. We’re all committed. We’re trying to do what’s best for all the guys and give people what they want to see.”
Compared to his superstar-studded roster, which includes the 42-year-old Cruz in the unique role of player-general manager, Linares, who was promoted to the Tampa Bay Rays’ bench coach after four seasons as their third-base coach, is a relative unknown. But his baseball pedigree has few rivals.
Dominican Republic has 'good problems' with star-studded WBC roster
Linares’ father, Julio, played 1,400 games over 15 seasons in the minor leagues, was one of the first Dominicans to play for a Japanese team and has spent nearly 50 years with the Houston Astros — as instructor, coach, minor-league manager, major-league bench coach and director of operations in the Dominican Republic. And now, at age 81, he's their senior advisor in Latin American development.
Linares never saw his father play, but his immersion in baseball was total.
“It’s everything I’ve ever known,” said Linares, who was born in Brooklyn but grew up in San Pedro de Macoris. “We grew up, it was baseball, 24/7. You came from school, you went to the park or you played outside in the street. It’s been baseball or nothing for us.
“Ever since you’re 3 or 4 years old, all you want to do is be a baseball player.”
Linares, an infielder like his dad, signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1997. He was overmatched in rookie ball and was released after one season. The Astros gave him another shot the following season, playing for his father, but the results were no better. Linares was only 21 when club officials, including his dad, suggested that he might want to consider another route if he wanted to stay in the game.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Linares said. “I didn’t get depressed, but I was really sad.”
The Astros found a meaningful way to deliver the message, one that would change the course of Linares’ life. The club asked him to write a scouting report — on himself — and was so impressed by his thoroughness that the Astros offered him a job as a coach in the Dominican summer league.
“Best decision I ever made in my life,” he said.
Linares was hardly an overnight success. In 2007, he was promoted to his first managing job at age 29 with Greeneville (Tenn.) in the rookie Appalachian League, and his team went 17-51, losing by an average of more than three runs a game. “I think we came within one loss of setting the all-time record,” he said ruefully.
“I remember having a conversation with my dad,” he added. “I told him, ‘I want to go back to being a hitting coach. I don’t want to be managing.’”
Julio’s message to his son? “You’re going to learn at your own pace. Keep doing the work,” Linares recalled. “And remember, you’re only as good as the players on your roster.”
Linares hung in there. His managing improved, and the players did, too. He helped in the development of some of the core talents that helped make the Astros one of the dominant forces in the sport — Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, J.D. Martinez — and he was one of the first to recognize the potential in Martinez, pleading with his farm director to give the outfielder the chance to play.
By the end, Linares was winning with regularity. In six of his last seven seasons as manager, his teams went to the postseason, including the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies in 2018. He also managed 13 seasons in the Dominican Winter League.
However, in an organizational shakeup, Linares was let go after the 2018 season, and he returned home to the Dominican, where in the first week back his car was stolen. Among other possessions lost was his cellphone, which is why he didn’t know the Rays were trying to reach him to offer their third-base coaching position. He found out only after Astros manager A.J. Hinch sent him an Instagram message — “Where are you? The Rays want you.”
Linares had made the major leagues. Last summer, he got a call from Cruz, asking him if he would be interested in managing Team DR.
“I said, ‘Are you telling me or asking me?’” Linares said. “He said, 'I’m asking you if you want to be.’ I said, ‘Hell, yeah, I want to be manager.’”
Linares’ first call was to his father: “I told him, ‘You know, dreams do come true. A kid from the Dominican, never played a day in the big leagues, had to grind it out 20-plus years in the minor leagues, and now you get rewarded with this.’ That’s what it’s all about.”
This opportunity, combined with his promotion to Rays bench coach, may well serve as a springboard for Linares, who’s still only 45, to manage in the major leagues. That pursuit can obviously wait. He knows his country is taking enormous expectations into the WBC — and with good reason. The Dominican dream team is so stacked that Cruz, who has hit 459 home runs in his MLB career, joked that he might not have made the squad if he hadn’t been the guy choosing the roster.
Team DR features Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the 2021 American League MVP runner-up, and Manny Machado, the 2022 National League MVP runner-up. It also has Sandy Alcantara (2022 NL Cy Young Award winner), shortstop Jeremy Peña (MVP in both the 2022 AL Championship Series and 2022 World Series), Julio Rodríguez (2022 AL Rookie of the Year) and Cristian Javier (winning pitcher in Houston’s combined no-hitter in the World Series). And then there are Juan Soto, Rafael Devers, Robinson Cano, Wander Franco and closer Camilo Doval.
“An All-Star team times two,” Linares said. “I think we have a really good mix of super-talented young guys and really talented older guys.
“We have a lot of good problems on this team. A lot of good headaches.”
Linares said he’s letting others stress about finding playing time for everyone.
“All of our kids, all of our guys, there’s no ego,” Linares said. “All the conversations that I’ve had with the guys, they’re like, ‘Just whatever you need, we’ll do whatever is necessary for us to win.’
“… If you have an ego representing your country, there’s something wrong with you.”
|Enyel De Los Santos||RHP||Guardians|
|Yimi Garcia||RHP||Blue Jays|
|Rafael Devers||INF||Red Sox|
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||INF||Blue Jays|
|Eloy Jiménez||OF||White Sox|