Role players like Barbaro Garbey were key for '84 Tigers

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News
Barbaro Garbey played a key role to Detroit's 35-5 start in 1984.

Detroit — Even today, there’s no shortage of news or discussion about the key pillars of the 1984 World Series champions.

Thirty-five years later, Tigers fans still see Jack Morris and Kirk Gibson on TV, follow Alan Trammell and Lance Parrish's managing and coaching careers, and argue full-throated for Lou Whitaker to someday get in the Hall of Fame.

But Trammell argued Friday, on the eve of Saturday’s anniversary celebration for the “Bless You Boys” squad, that some Sparky Anderson intuition keyed big seasons from lesser-known players.

One of those instincts came at spring training in Lakeland, Fla., when Anderson, as legend has it, saw an unknown Cuban named Barbaro Garbey hitting on the minor-league backfields.

“Sparky, when we’d go over to the backfields, he saw him in the minor league fields taking batting practice and he called him over across the street, and next thing you know, he’s on our team,” Trammell said of Garbey. “That’s a true story. It’s a wonderful story.”

It sure was for Garbey, 62, who admitted Friday that the tale was true but actually was from 1982, as Anderson did invite him to big-league camp where he proved his worth.

Anderson’s belief in Garbey helped the utility player break camp with the club in 1984, his rookie season at age 27, four years after defecting from Cuba as part of a mass emigration in 1980.

In his third major league game, Garbey smashed two doubles in Chicago, driving in three runs to help the Tigers top the White Sox, 7-3.

“I just remember him pulling the ball down the left-field line for a double,” Trammell said. “I remember that more than once or twice. He could hit. There was no question about it. He was confident.”

April was Garbey’s best month for the Tigers, who famously started the season 35-5 in part because of Garbey’s .444 average and 11 RBIs in his first MLB month.

“I was a big part of that 35-5,” said Garbey, whose 52 RBIs that season ranked seventh on the team, proving his manager right. “Everyone contributed.”

Players like Garbey, Marty Castillo and Juan Berenguer had career seasons in 1984, helping to spark a magical Michigan summer fondly remembered decades later by millions.

Barbaro Garbey didn't reach the majors until he was 27. But when he did, he helped the Tigers win it all in 1984.

The memories will be celebrated at Comerica Park on Saturday with a 3:30 p.m. pregame ceremony to celebrate the team, along with a Sparky Anderson bobblehead giveaway to the first 10,000 fans to honor the late skipper.

Twenty Tigers players are expected to attend, with Rod Allen, Doug Baker Larry Herndon and Castillo among the few missing, in addition to the late Dave Bergman and Aurelio Lopez.

Morris, the Hall of Fame ace of the 1984 pitching staff and a three-time champion, said the strength of the friendships astound him, proving “World Series championship are special.”

“It’s just good to see everybody,” Morris said Friday. “We shared such a wonderful time together, and I think we brought a lot of joy to the city and community and we’re still reaping those benefits.

“Even though part of us physically look different, the soul and the heart and the camaraderie is still there.”

Garbey came up this weekend from the Appalachian League where he is a hitting coach for the Danville (Va.) Braves, an Atlanta advanced rookie ball affiliate.

His year-round home is still Michigan though, as he met his wife in 1984, later marrying Kimberly and settling in Livonia with his three children.

"I fell in love with her first, then I fell in love with the city," Garbey said of Detroit.

After being named the 1984 Tigers Rookie of the Year by Detroit Sports Media, Garbey’s numbers dropped in 1985 and he was traded to Oakland for Dave Collins.

There, he was buried behind young players such as Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Luis Polonia and Stan Javier.

After his first of two stints in the Mexican League, Garbey surfaced for 30 more games with Texas in 1988, never to make it to the bigs again.

Garbey said he has used some of his experiences as a young player to teach Atlanta’s top young players, such as Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley.

“You have to take advantage of the situation and the opportunity that is brought to you — don’t take anything for granted,” said Garbey, who was arrested in 1986 for drug possession. “At that time, when I came from Cuba, I didn’t know the system too much. We had no knowledge about professionalism.

“So when I came here, I was a little bit confused. I didn’t know how to act on and off the field. That was very hard for me to make that type of transition.

“Maybe that was part of the reason why I did not stay with the Tigers for a long time.”

But in 1984, similar to players like Castillo — who had three hits in his nine World Series at-bats, including a two-run home run in Game 3 — Garbey was on top of the baseball world.

“I’m very happy with my short career,” Garbey said. “We just have great memories, and it’s nice to see everybody.”

Players such as Whitaker, Parrish, Gibson and Trammell had better statistical seasons in their careers. But that group never did recapture the magic of ’84, in part because some of the role players who answered the call.

“They had a lot of great players on it and a lot of great things happened, and you have to have that magical run,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Baseball is hard. That just tells you how hard it is.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.