Saturday, May 25, 2013

Barbaro Garbey: A Cuban Trailblazer

Because the team is struggling, there has been recent talk of the Los Angeles Dodgers calling up their No.1 prospect, Yasiel Puig, from the minor leagues.  Puig, a Cuban defector, hit a robust .517 this past spring training, which produced speculation that the 22 year old would make the big league club.  Due to a crowded outfield and his youth, the Dodgers opted to send Puig to Double AA Chattanooga.
I doubt he will get the call up soon but it's only a matter of time when Puig makes it to the majors and when he does, he would be the latest defector of Cuba to do so.  Other current players include: Reds' Aroldis Chapman , Athletics' Yeonis Cespedes, Pirates' Jose Contreras and Mariners' Kendrys Morales.
We all know that Jackie Robinson was the first black player and Hideo Nomo started the influx of Japanese players in the majors, but who was the first Cuban defector?  Shortly after Fidel Castro became the dictator of Cuba in 1959, he abolished professional baseball and shut down the borders which ended the pipeline of Cubans to the major leagues.  There were a few Cubans during his regime to play in USA such as Rafael Palmiero, Tony Perez and Jose Canseco but they left Cuba as children and never were on any organized clubs in Cuba.   The first player to officially defect was Barbaro Garbey.
1984 Topps Traded

Garbey won a batting title in Cuba and was on the 1977 and '78 national teams.  However, in 1978 he was one of ten players suspended for taking cash from a run shaving scam.  Garbey denied throwing games, but said extra money was needed for his family because he was being paid so poorly.
In 1980,  Castro temporarily lifted his ban on people leaving the country.  From April to October, 1,700 boats of 125,000 Cubans came to the United States during the Mariel Freedom Flotilla.   Most of the those who left were called gusanos or "worms" by Castro  These people were either in jail, a mental hospital or against Castro's government.  Garbey did not fit in any of these groups, but saw it has an opportunity to leave. Garbey was easily recognized and subsequently denied initially, and finally made to the United States on the fourth attempt.  He was only allowed to leave with clothes he was wearing at the time and had to leave his family behind also.
After arriving to USA, Detroit Tigers scout and fellow Cuban, Orlando Pena sought him out.  Garbey ended up signing with the Tigers for a mere $2,500 bonus and a promise of $7.500 more if he made to the majors.
Garbey played well in the minors but got himself in trouble in 1983.  He admitted to newspapers that he took cash for the game fixing scam.  MLB became aware of this and immediately suspended Garbey. While on suspension, he got in a fight with a fan and hit him with a bat.  His suspension was eventually lifted and Garbey made his MLB debut in 1984 for the Detroit Tigers.
For the season, Garbey hit. 287 and had 52 RBIs while playing 3B, 1B and DH and also helped the Tigers win the World Series.  But, the following year his production declined as Detroit couldn't find a regular spot for him in the lineup.  He finshed with 28 RBIs and a .257 average and was dealt to Oakland at the end of the year.
Garbey never did play for Oakland.  He made his way to professional leagues in Mexico and Venezuela for a couple years before a brief stint with Texas Rangers in 1988.  Soon after, he finished his playing career back in the minors and now is a hitting instructor.
After Garbey, the next player to defect was Rene Arocha in 1991 when signed with St Louis Cardinals.  Since, there has been over 40 players to defect from Cuba to play in the major leagues.  Today, as Jose Contreras once stated in an interview, Garbey is considered "a hero" and "everyone knows he was the first."

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