Remember Barbaro Garbey? His time in a Tiger uniform was not all that long – just two years, and those two years constituted two thirds of his major league career. But he was around in 1984, and the Skipper himself called him “Bobby.” In this town, it doesn’t take much more than that to become a legend.
Barbaro’s real life story is the stuff of which at least movies, if not legends, are made. (Are you listening, those of you out there in Michigan’s new film industry?) And, frankly, he has not always been the hero of his own tale.
Think back to the heyday of Fidel Castro – not so very long ago, at that. When Fidel Castro briefly lifted his ban on emigration from Cuba, Barbaro (whose Cuban baseball credentials were superb) wasted no time. He headed straight to America. It took him four attempts to join a flotilla (emigrants bunched together on small boats), because he was so easily recognized by officials who, being baseball fans, wanted to darned well keep a star at home in Cuba.
Scrawny from life-long lack of food, owning only the clothes he stood up in, having had to leave his wife and two children behind him, Barbaro found himself in the questionable Mecca that was Fort Indiantown Gap in East Hanover, PA. It was there that a Tiger scout (none other than Cuban Orlando Pena) tracked him down and signed him.
Barbaro’s transition to American professional baseball and an eventual part in the 1984 Tiger World Championship was hardly a smooth one. He was used to scrounging for a living, and adjustment to a society where ballplayers weren’t supposed to slug fans wasn’t a simple thing for him. It didn’t help when local gendarmes learned that, back in Cuba (albeit strictly in order to feed his family) Barbaro had been involved in fixing games.
It probably was fortunate that he’d signed with the Tigers. GM Bill Lajoie knew how to judge men for their potential both on and off the field, and if a man had true potential, Lajoie would work with him. The support that Lajoie offered his troubled protégé became particularly necessary as Barbaro dealt with the realization that the separation from his family was going to be a permanent one.
Whatever, in the spring of ’84, Barbaro was on the Tigers roster and ready to contribute to the championship year. As a utility player (good hit, absolutely zero field), he hit .287 and picked up 52 RBIs. They tried him everyplace – infield and outfield. The worst was third base. In just 24 games on the hot corner, he made seven errors for an unbelievable .774 fielding average. When his hitting, the very real talent that kept him in the majors, tailed off the following year, he was traded to the A’s.
Then there followed a series of major and minor league transitions, unfortunately coupled with further lapses in judgment. In 1986, officers found cocaine in Barbaro’s car during a routine traffic stop. If it was lousy judgment to mess with drugs, it was even worse judgment to have picked that particular traffic officer – a former Cubs farm hand with an understandably short fuse where combining drugs and baseball was concerned.
But the kid still could hit, and he loved the game, so, in spite of his lack of common sense, in 1987 Barbaro was picked up by the Texas Rangers, who assigned him to their AAA club. He made it back into the majors in 1988 and then bounced around several minor league associations – long enough to be one of the Cleveland Indians replacement players during the 1994-1995 strike, and long enough to be the first replacement player involved in a major league trade.
Retiring as an active player, Barbaro turned to coaching. The man had “been there, done that” on a lot of levels, and he turned out to be pretty good at working with youngsters just coming up in the system. In 2003, he was back in the Tigers organization as hitting coach for the Whitecaps. In 2006, he became a Cub – working first in Peoria, then with the class-A Tennessee Smokies, and then, in 2009, moving back to the Peoria Chiefs.
Today, long since remarried and the proud father of three, Barbaro’s first priority is his family. He lives in the Detroit area – where he does in fact remain firmly a part of Tiger legend.