Barbaro Garbey remembers being on a crowded fishing boat with close to 200 other people making the 12-hour trip from Cuba to, as he calls it, “freedom.”
Everyone on the boat knew who he was. He was a baseball player leaving baseball-crazed Cuba in 1980. And he wasn’t supposed to be there, on a boat meant for criminals and political dissidents. But through luck and blind eyes, he snuck his way on to one of the boats of the “Freedom Flotilla,” a mass exodus of people from Cuba who were exiled with permission from then President Fidel Castro.
Investigations later revealed that Castro had willingly sent away people who had been released from jail and mental-health facilities. Garbey didn’t fit that description — he just had a dream to play baseball in the United States.
He had to try four times to get out of the country, eventually persuading a friend who had a criminal record to let him use his papers to get approved.
“It was the most difficult decision I had to make — because you’re leaving your family and everybody you knew behind. It was scary. But exciting,” Garbey told Fusion in an interview.
Garbey was the first member of Cuba’s national team to defect from Cuba under the Castro regime, paving the way for dozens of others to follow in his footsteps in the 1990s, the 2000s, and today.
He said he’s encouraged by the decision of the U.S. and Cuban governments to “normalize” relations and break down barriers that have existed between the two countries since the Cold War. He called the announcement “amazing” and said it makes him “happy for the Cuban people.”
He said he hopes it will be easier for Cuba’s best and brightest players to fulfill the same dream he had — to play in the U.S.’s major leagues.
“It will be good for them to see what’s happening in the outside world. I hope they’ll have the ability to come here and play more freely, not feeling they have to desert,” Barbaro said.
As of now, the travel ban between the two countries still exists, but that could change with congressional action next year. Thus far, Major League Baseball is taking a cautious approach, saying it will “closely monitor” how the White House’s announcement may affect the way its clubs handle Cuba-related transactions.
“While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our Clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba,” MLB said in a statement.
But Wednesday’s announcement from President Barack Obama fed dreams of a major-league world in which some of Cuba’s stars would be featured. It was an especially emotional day for Garbey, who left everything behind in search of his dream. He hopes no other players will have to forge as complicated of a path as his.
“My decision was based on playing baseball,” he said. “You know, my dream was to play in the major leagues. But when I fulfilled that dream, I was not able to go back to Cuba because they were afraid of some of the players following in my footsteps.”
Garbey remembers the canned food and cigarettes. They were the first thing that he was handed off the fishing boat when he reached U.S. soil. He spent the first night in a refugee camp and then was shipped up to Fort Indiantown Gap, the Pennsylvania army camp.
He spent two months there before the Detroit Tigers, through the grapevine, found out he had made it to the United States. Orlando Pena, a former major-league pitcher from Cuba who was working as a scout for the Tigers, offered him a contract when they first met, Garbey said.
Four years later, he made his major-league debut with the Tigers in an Opening Day game against the Minnesota Twins. He came up to pinch-hit in the ninth inning of a one-sided game the Tigers won, and grounded out. But he didn’t care.
“I was so nervous. I could believe it. I just could not believe my dream had come true,” Garbey said.
But he soon found out that his dream would throw him some unforeseen negative consequences. He didn’t see his immediate family for more than 12 years after leaving Cuba. The only time he saw his mother was during a two- to three-month span before she eventually passed away, Garbey said, after she was approved to travel to Mexico.
“The suffering is still there. It’s hard when … there are so many years that pass and you are not able to go back to your own country,” Garbey said. “That’s something that’s difficult to stomach.”
Though Garbey is hopeful other Cuban players won’t face the same restrictions in light of the new policy shift, other baseball observers were more skeptical. Joe Kehoskie, a former agent now working as a consultant, said it’s doubtful the Cuban government would willingly allow its best players to leave the country to play in the U.S.
About a year ago, he said, Cuba announced it would allow athletes to play abroad professionally, but it didn’t translate into action. Only “five or six of Cuba’s most loyal” baseball players were able to play abroad, he said. Meanwhile, top talents like infielder Yoan Moncada, second baseman Hector Olivera, and Yasmany Tomas, an outfielder who has signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, have continued to defect from the country.
“As I've been saying for years, the embargo could go away tomorrow, but there's still little indication that Cuba is interested in allowing its best players to leave en masse for MLB,” Kehoskie said.
Garbey has started a life in the U.S., which has helped to blunt the pain that came with being so far away from his mother and siblings. He and his wife, Kimberly, have been married for 30 years. They have three children — aged 24, 18, and 11.
Garbey has spent the last seven years in the Atlanta Braves’ organization. He is looking forward to being able to travel to Cuba at some point.
“Now, I hope I can go back,” he said. “But it’s a little late.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.