In the late 1970s, Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba was attempting to deal with a wave of discontent among citizens who wanted to leave the country to escape political oppression. At the same time, the U.S. government was seeking to improve its strained relationship with Castro.

As tensions rose on the island nation, thousands of people went to foreign embassies in search of sanctuary. Eventually, several nations, including the U.S., offered asylum to bona fide political prisoners. But the floodgates opened in April 1980, shortly after U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced America would accept up to 3,500 Cuban refugees. Castro then announced the port of Mariel would be open to anyone who wanted to go, and thousands upon thousands wanted to go.

The numbers quickly escalated. In all, around 125,000 Cubans came to America during a six-month stretch in 1980 in what became known as the Mariel boatlift, or the Freedom Flotilla.

Some left for political reasons. Some left for economic reasons. And some left because Castro didn’t want them in Cuba. And so many of those contributed to the greater good of America by bringing blue-collar skills to the South Florida labor market. Some even would rise to fame, including painter and sculptor Carlos Alfonzo, opera singer Elizabeth Caballero, poet Reinaldo Arenas, Pulitzer Prize winner Mirta Ojito, and a hardscrabble baseball player named Barbaro Garbey—the first Cuban from the Castro era to make it to the Major Leagues.

A Big League Journey

Credit: Detroit Tigers, Inc.

Credit: Detroit Tigers, Inc.

Barbaro Garbey chuckled at the idea that long bus rides are some sort of inconvenience in life.

“You are talking with a Cuban who came on a boat for 12 hours,” he said. “No pressure for me to be on a bus for six or seven hours.”

In 2016, the 59-year-old Barbaro finished his fifth year as a coach with the Mississippi Braves, a Class AA minor league baseball team. Long bus rides were the norm. When the season ended, he headed to Venezuela to coach in a winter league with more bus rides.

That’s his life. A good life.

“I’m just happy to stay in baseball,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what level. As long as I can continue to teach and stay in baseball, I’m happy. This is the game I love. That’s the only thing I know. So I’m very satisfied.”

To the young athletes he now mentors and coaches, Barbero offers much more than help with baseball skills. They might, at first, see him as just another guy who has spent a lifetime bouncing around professional baseball with an all-too-brief taste of the Big Leagues. When they get to know him, however, they find that his personal journey represents the power of persistence, the value of second chances, and the importance of following your passions in life.

For Barbaro, that passion has always been baseball. It’s a game he loves so much, in fact, that he walked away from everything he knew in Cuba—and everyone he knew, as well—on the belief that he could make it to the Major Leagues as a player. And he did. But like so many parts of his journey, it seldom came easily, and never without a price.

From Star to Refugee

Barbaro came from an athletic family and was identified early on as a baseball talent. He was the youngest of nine siblings who included a brother who was champion boxer and a sister who was a star track athlete. His brother, in fact, won a gold medal as a light-middleweight in the 1967 Pan American Games, a silver in the 1968 Olympics, and a bronze in the 1976 Olympics. And his sister finished fourth in the long jump at the 1972 Olympics. 

So it was no surprise when Barbaro, at age 11, was sent to the Sport Initiation School in Havana to be groomed for a career as a baseball player.

“My life in Cuba was not bad at all,” Barbaro said. “From the time I was 11 or 12, we’d go to school in the morning, practice in the afternoon, go to bed, and go home on weekends. So I was well-prepared. I started playing at the elite level in Cuba.”

He was only 17 in 1974 when he debuted on the Cuban national team, and he quickly became a celebrity in the baseball-crazed nation. But he was earning only 95 pesos a month—about $860 a year—and in 1978 he was caught taking money on the side from gamblers to shave runs and keep games close. Just like that, Barbaro was out of baseball.

He needed a way to provide for his wife and two young daughters, and he longed to prove himself as one of the best of the best in baseball. He might have stayed and worked his way back onto the national team, but the Mariel boatlift in 1980 provided another opportunity—the chance to play professionally in America.

Fidel Castro had agreed to let anyone leave who wanted to go, but there were no guarantees that the promise would apply to Barbaro. Under Castro, no Cuban-born player had ever gone to America and made it to the Major Leagues. There were no guarantees that Barbaro would make a team if he made it to America, or that he would even get the chance to try out. So with all of those unknowns, Barbaro and his wife decided she should stay behind with their children.

“We decided to do it that way because I didn’t know what to expect when I came over here,” he said. “I didn’t want to bring the family and start a new life without knowing. I wanted to get on my feet and bring them over later.”

It would be a risk, to be sure. But it was a risk he believed was worth taking—if only he could get off the island. Even though he no longer was a member of the national team, he was still a well-known baseball player from a family of talented athletes. He wasn’t someone the Castro government wanted to put on the boats that were shuttling people to America. So he had to work the system just to get a ticket.

I had to go to the immigration office about three times. They told me the situation was not for me. A lot of people who were going had been in jail or the government wanted to get them out of the country for some other reason. So I persevered.

Eventually, Barbaro traded his documents with someone who had a criminal background, and he was given the necessary papers to leave the country. “That’s how I got through,” he said. “Even then, some officials recognized me and put pressure on me not to leave.”

For Barbaro, however, there was no turning back. He joined another 200 refugees on a boat, and they hunkered down for the journey into the unknown. The capacity for the craft was only 80 people, so it was jam-packed. And a brutal storm blew in, making the trip more miserable. The 90-mile crossing to Key West, Florida, took 12 hours, but each minute brought them closer and closer to something they didn’t have in Cuba—hope.

“It was a long boat ride,” Barbaro said, “but no one was thinking about the long boat ride. They were thinking about getting to America and starting a new life.”

To read more of Barbaro's story, click here to download our first installment of The American Immigrant: The Outsiders, available now on Amazon Kindle.