Garbey paved the way for Cuba’s Cespedes

Barbaro Garbey Detroit Tigers Lakeland Tigers Cuba baseball

Barbaro Garbey's defection from Cuba in 1980 ushered in an era of opportunity for ballplayers from that nation.

How would you rather show up for your press conference, by jet plane on a well-lit runway or saltwater-soaked raft in the dark of night?

A young Cuban ballplayer will be afforded the luxury of the jet, thanks to the courage of a former Detroit Tiger.

In the next few weeks, Cuba defector Yoennis Cespedes will arrive in the United States from the Dominican Republic, where he’s been waiting to be declared a baseball free agent. Soon after, the talented outfielder will sign a contract with a major league team for millions of dollars. It might be with the Detroit Tigers, who have been one of his warmest suitors.

Cespedes’ relatively comfortable transition from Cuban ballplayer to American millionaire is in stark contrast to the story of Barbaro Garbey, to whom Cespedes and other Cuban defectors owe much.

It was Garbey who was the first player to defect from Cuban, back in 1980. But when he came to America, Garbey did it as part of the “Freedom Flotilla”, a collection of makeshift boats, yachts, and ramshackle rafts that traveled the 90 plus miles from Cuba. The young Garbey shared a raft with several family members, each of them holding on for their lives, not knowing what to expect.

Not long after washing ashore in Miami that cold evening, Garbey was signed as a free agent by the Detroit Tigers. As a member of the 1976 Cuban National team that won the Amateur Baseball World Series, Garbey had a good reputation in international circles. He was a batting champion in Cuba, known for his quick hands at the plate. His pedigree was strong too: his brother was an Olympic medalist as a boxer, and his sister was an Olympic long jumper.

Even though Garbey couldn’t always understand what his coaches or teammates were saying to him, he spoke the language of baseball. He hit .364 in a short stint with Detroit’s farm team in Lakeland just weeks after arriving in the U.S. The next season he vaulted two levels in the Tiger organization, and in 1982 he hit .298, following it up with a .321 mark at Evansville in 1983. he made the Tigers big league club in spring training in 1984, joining a talented club that would dominate baseball that season.

The little-known Garbey was a big part of the ’84 Tigers record 35-5 start out of the gate. He made his first start in the game in which Jack Morris tossed his no-hitter in Chicago against the White Sox. The following day, Garbey delivered a two-run pinch-hit double and added another RBI in a Detroit victory. He had four straight multi-hit games as the Tigers improved their record to 15-1. In Boston on May 1, the Cuban drive in four runs. A pinch-hit single the next day pushed his batting average to .476 in 15 games, with 15 RBI. When he hit his first major league home ron May 18 against Oakland, Garbey’s average was still a lofty .380. By that time, the Tigers had all but wrapped up the division crown.

“I love being a Tiger,” Garbey chirped early in that season.

Filling in at first base, third base, left field, and designated hitter, Garbey was a valuable cog in Sparky Anderson’s arsenal. He was 8-for-25 (.320) as a pinch-hitter for his gray-maned manager. On the best team in baseball, Garbey often batted third. He had three hits in the ALCS sweep of the Royals but went hitless in the World Series. Still, he was an important piece of the 1984 World Series champions, earning a ring for his efforts. Sparky brought him back in 1985, again using him as a super sub and pinch-hitter. But, as with many Latino players, he was a couple years older than his reported age, and his skills faded. He spent years in other organizations, but never achieved the success he had as a Tiger. He played in Mexico and Venezuela, anything to keep a bat in his hands.

His skill with a bat was never in doubt, and due to that he found work as a coach, first with the Tigers at Oneonta (NY) in 2002. He currently is the hitting coach for the Daytona Cubs.

In the years since Garbey’s defection from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, hundreds of other players have escaped that island nation to pursue their baseball dreams. Every year there are a handful of players who still make the trip via boat. In 2002, pitching star Jose Contreras fled to the U.S., signing a deal with the New York Yankees, becoming the most famous ballplayer to flee his homeland. The historic significance of Garbey’s defection wasn’t lost on Contreras.

“Everyone knows who he is in Cuba,” Contreras said. “Everyone knows that he was the first one.”