Garbey, Kuntz & Castillo played roles on 1984 Champs

Over the course of a 162-game season, a manager will eventually have to look down his bench and find the players who occupy the last few spots on his roster. A season cannot be navigated with stars alone.

Few managers in history understood that better than George “Sparky” Anderson, who was a pretty mediocre talent himself when he played the game. Throughout his Hall of Fame managerial tenure, Sparky showed an affinity for the “scrubs” on his bench. In 1984, when the Tigers rolled to the pennant, it might have appeared as if it was easy, but throughout the campaign, at critical junctures, Anderson relied on his bench to provide a boost.

This is a profile of three of those “super-subs” who made their mark in 1984. None of these players ended up with a plaque in Cooperstown, none of them were All-Stars, but they all had their moments in the major leagues, and all of them can call themselves world champions.

Barbaro Garbey: From Cuba to Detroit

It takes a measure of courage to stand in the box and face a major league fastball. But it takes even more guts to escape a terrible situation by riding a small boat 90 miles across the ocean in the middle of night. Barbaro Garbey did both.

Born in Cuba, Garbey was a gifted athlete, and four times in the 1970s he starred for the Cuban National team in international competition. He was short but strong, with a short, compact swing from the right side of the plate. He won a few batting titles in Cuba, but a gambling scandal scarred his career on the island. Garbey later explained that he had little choice but to take part in runs-shaving, since he was being paid very little to play baseball and had a family to support.

In 1980, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro publicly invited any Cuban who didn’t want to live under his regime, to “leave the homeland.” Garbey was 24 years old when he stepped onto a small fishing boat with dozens of others on a dark night in June. The boat landed in Key West where Garbey and the others were relocated to a refugee camp in Pennsylvania. It was there that he met Orlando Pena, a former player who was scouting for the Tigers. Pena couldn’t believe the skinny kid he saw playing catch while wearing tattered blue jeans was the “Garbey” he heard so much about from Cuban baseball figures. He asked Barbaro if he could hit a baseball.

“Get me out of here and feed me well and you’ll see how well I can hit,” Garbey said. The Tigers signed Garbey for a modest $2,500 and assigned him to their farm system. No one would have predicted that the skinny refugee would be part of a championship team in Detroit only four years later.

Garbey sprayed line drives around the diamond at every stop in his minor league career in the United States. He hit .364 in his first taste of pro ball, followed that with an All-Star selection with Birmingham in 1982, and earned a promotion to Triple-A Evansville the following year.

It wasn’t easy for Garbey in his first years in the United States. Having come here alone, Garbey didn’t have any family support, he didn’t speak good English, and he was hounded by his past. Once the story broke that he had been involved in a gambling scandal in Cuba, some fans in the minor leagues took to jeering Garbey any time he failed on the field. The young Cuban nearly quit baseball, but he held firm with encouragement from the Tigers organization and one very influential admirer.

When Sparky Anderson saw Garbey hit in spring training in 1981, he immediately fell in love with the Cuban’s short stroke. He compared Garbey to Roberto Clemente, which was unfair, but represented the quality of Barbaro’s hitting. By spring training in 1984, the team planned to find a spot for him. But after the trade that brought Dave Bergman to the team, Garbey’s spot on the roster was unsure.

It turned out to be impossible to keep Garbey off the opening day roster, he hit so well in Florida. He made his first appearance as a pinch-hitter on opening day. He was the first Cuban-born player to debut in the majors since Tony Perez in 1964. His first month in the league, Garbey hit like Perez.

In April as the Tigers rolled to an 18-2 record, Garbey kept his batting average over .400, with 11 RBIs in only 13 games. He was among batting leaders in the American League and suddenly his story of escape from Cuba in the famed “Freedom Flotilla” was an inspiration. He was valuable off the bench for Sparky, delivering eight pinch-hits that season. He had three more hits in the playoffs against the Royals, but went hitless in 12 at-bats in the World Series. But that didn’t lessen the sweet taste of winning.

“This moment I’ve never known in baseball,” Garbey said. “We were champions in Cuba in 1974, but it didn’t mean too much. I was happy, but it wasn’t like this. This means you are part of one of the best baseball teams in the world.”

Garbey was a key reason the 1984 Tigers had great production from their bench. Non-starters hit close to .290 that season and between Garbey, Ruppert Jones, Dave Bergman, and Johnny Grubb, the big bats off the bench hit nearly 20 home runs and provided clutch hits. Sparky played Garbey at first base, third, at designated hitter, and even used him in the outfield.

The Tigers brought Garbey back in 1985 and he was solid, but not quite as effective as he’d been in 1984. After the season the 28-year old asked to be traded so he could play regularly. Detroit obliged and swapped him to Oakland, where Barbaro failed to earn a roster spot. He played his final big league games in 1988 for Texas but that wasn’t the end of his baseball story. Garbey forged a career in the Mexican League where he hit over .300 a few times, still flashing his quick bat.

Garbey eventually found his way into coaching, briefly working in several organizations as a batting instructor. He currently lives in Livonia with his wife and children and remains in contact with the Tigers organization, occasionally appearing at fantasy camps where he once again dons the uniform of the team that he helped to a World Series title.

Trusty Rusty Kuntz

In seven seasons as a professional ballplayer, Rusty Kuntz had never done much to distinguish himself. He seemed like a Triple-A player, nothing more. He had some brief spells with big league clubs, a few cups of coffee in The Show prior to landing with the Tigers in 1984 on the other end of a trade involving Larry Pashnick.

After playing a lot in Florida in his first camp with Detroit, there was something in Rusty that Sparky Anderson liked, and the manager offered Kuntz a job. But it came with conditions.

“Sparky said, ‘If you don’t want the job, I’m going to give it to [another player], but I’m giving you first choice at it. So you can say yes or you can say no. Now, first thing out of your mouth that you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to be that [player]? I’ll have you out of here in a heartbeat.’ ”

The job was not sexy: Kuntz would be a defensive replacement, wouldn’t start, wouldn’t play two days in a row, would be a late-inning guy getting very few chances. Eager to be in the big leagues, Kuntz took the job.

Sparky used Rusty just as he promised, as a late-innings defensive replacement for Kirk Gibson or Larry Herndon, as a pinch-runner and pinch-hitter. At the end of June he had appeared in 50 games and performed as well as anyone could have expected, he was hitting .311 in his limited role.

Kuntz was briefly sent to the minors when the Tigers needed another pitcher, but he was called back and finished the year with Detroit, batting .286 with a pair of homers and 22 RBIs. Still seeing Rusty as a part of the team, SParky included him on the playoff roster. Against all odds, in the World Series in Game Five he found himself in a key spot.

With the game tied 3-3 in the fifth, the Tigers had the bases loaded when the Padres brought in a lefthanded pitcher to face Johnny Grubb. That’s when Sparky turned to Trusty Rusty.

“The scouting reporting on Lefferts was [that] he would come in hard early and then throw that little nothing changeup away late. So when you go to the plate, look for that first one to drive,” Kuntz said. “Well, I can’t tell you what happened because the adrenaline is just overwhelming. When Sparky looks down and says, ‘Rusty, grab a bat.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’m actually going to play.’”

Kuntz ended up hitting a harmless popup into short right field and was immediately pissed that he had failed his teammates. But when second baseman Alan Wiggins made the catch he was retreating into right field, going away from the infield. Kirk Gibson was the runner on third base and he took off for home, scoring in an exciting play that gave the Tigers the lead they never relinquished. Rusty had an RBI sacrifice fly that proved to be the winning run in the Series.

Kuntz’s unlikely story and his strange name made him a folk hero of sorts in the Motor City. He was tall and thin with a bushy head of blonde hair. He didn’t look like a major league player. Fans felt a kinship with Rusty. He played a few games for Sparky in 1985 but that turned out to be his last taste of major league action. He later spent several seasons as an outfield coach and first base coach for the Royals, earning a second ring with Kansas City in 2015.

Marty Castillo: The Unlikely Hero

When you can catch and also play a second position with some skill, you can be a valuable piece to a major league club. That’s why Marty Castillo got to play five seasons with the Detroit Tigers.

Castillo was drafted by Detroit in the 1978 amateur draft as a third baseman after a collegiate career in southern California. He earned a reputation as a good glove man and prompted by Tiger brass, he took up catching, working with former star Bill Freehan to learn the position. The path to the majors was blocked by Lance Parrish, but the team needed a versatile bench player who could wear many gloves. Castillo proved to be that guy, making his debut in 1981.

Every year for about a decade, Tom Brookens beat away competition for his job at third base, and Castillo was one of those guys who lost out to Brooky. In 1983 he played 58 games at the hot corner for Sparky Anderson, but Castillo looked overmatched at the plate. Still, his defensive acumen earned him a spot on the Tigers in April of 1984. Initially, Castillo saw little action, but as the season wore on he worked his way into a third base mix with Brookens, Howard Johnson, and Barbaro Garbey. When the dog days of summer came around, Sparky used Marty to spell Parrish, giving him a handful of starts behind the plate. In late August he hit two home runs in a series in Anaheim against the Angels with friends and family in the stands cheering him on.

The best part of the 1984 season for Castillo was the postseason where he emerged as an unlikely hero, not once but twice.

Sparky started Castillo at third base twice in the playoffs against the Royals. In Game One, Marty had two hits, and in Game Three he drove in the only run in a 1-0 victory when he beat out a fielders’ choice that allowed Chet Lemon to score from third. Castillo played the entire game and caught a foul popup for the final out that clinched the pennant. Castillo revealed that teammate Doug Bair had dared Castillo (if he had a chance to end the game) to catch the baseball behind his back.

A practical joker, Castillo was at his best in the clubhouse at Tiger Stadium after the win, pouring champagne on anyone within arm’s reach.

The crowning moment of Castillo’s career came in Game Three of the 1984 World Series in Detroit. With the game scoreless in the second, Castillo came up to face Tim Lollar with a runner on and two outs. Lollar tried to sneak a fastball by, but Castillo drove it into the first few rows of the upper deck in left field for a two-run home run. The blast ignited a four-run rally, the Tigers won the game 5-2 to take a two games to one lead in the series. The game had extra meaning to Castillo: his pregnant wife was at the contest on her due date. Their first child would be born a week later.

Castillo started Game Five and got on base three times, with two hits and a walk. He was one third base in the eighth inning when Kirk Gibson hit his mammoth home run off Goose Gossage to seal the championship.

He was back with the team in 1985, serving mostly as a second-string catcher behind Parrish. But things didn’t go as well that season for Marty, who hit just .119 with a pair of home runs in 57 games. Detroit released him in January of 1986 and his career was over. He’s been one of the most elusive members of the ’84 team, missing in action from reunions, his whereabouts uncertain.