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Peoria hitting coach, Soler share more than game

APPLETON, Wis. -- Someday, Barbaro Garbey will sit down with Jorge Soler, the Cubs' 20-year-old phenom, and tell him a story.

Garbey, 55, now the hitting coach for the Class A Peoria Chiefs, will talk about what life was like in Cuba and how he fled the country in 1980, along with 125,000 people who had nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Garbey was 23 then, and he had been a member of the Cuban baseball team that won the 1976 amateur World Series.

"When I came over from Cuba, I came on the 'Freedom Flotilla' in 1980, and we were only allowed to bring what we had on, no jewelry, nothing," Garbey said. "I wore the same pants for about a month and a half."

Garbey had no family other than a cousin in New York, and he had to stay in a refugee camp for two months while going through the immigration process. At one point, Garbey was switched to a military base. (Soler waited out his lengthy immigration process at someone's home.)

The Tigers knew Garbey's baseball background. They didn't have him go through a tryout, but the club signed the infielder/outfielder out of the refugee camp in June 1980. Garbey was assigned to Class A Lakeland. A utility player, he helped Detroit get to the World Series in '84, batting .287 that season.

Soler signed a nine-year, $30 million contract with the Cubs this summer. Asked whether his contract was close to that, Garbey laughed. He signed for $2,500 with progressive bonuses for each year in the Minor Leagues.

What Garbey and Soler do have in common is the difficult task of transitioning to a new country.

"I didn't speak any English, and we didn't have many Latinos in the Tigers organization at that time," Garbey said. "I was lucky to be with some good American teammates, and they really helped me a lot."

Garbey roomed with catcher and North Carolina native Dwight Lowry, who helped the young outfielder adjust to life in a foreign country. They watched television, ate together, traveled together. Soler is rooming with Cuban catcher Yaniel Cabezas and has player/coach Kenny Socorro to help as interpreter while with the Chiefs.

"It's different now," Garbey said. "At that time, there weren't many Latinos in the organization. There are more Latinos on this [Chiefs] team than there were in the whole Tigers organization. It'll be more difficult for [Soler] to concentrate and learn English, because he speaks Spanish all the time [with Cabezas and others]. In my time, I couldn't speak Spanish with anybody. I'm glad I did it. It made it easier to go through the transition."

The Cubs picked the perfect coach to help Soler begin his pro baseball career.

"Barbaro has been through what he's gone through -- I can't think of a better place to send him," said Cubs hitting coordinator Tom Beyers.

But Garbey hasn't talked about Cuba to Soler. Not yet.

"We've been with him for a week," Garbey said Sunday while the Chiefs were preparing for a game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. "We haven't had time to talk about things. We're just focused on what he needs to do. We're just focused on baseball."

Because the immigration process took so long, the focus has been to get Soler back in game shape. After he signed in late June, he played 14 games with the Cubs' Rookie League team in Mesa, Ariz., then joined the Chiefs on Aug. 10. Their season runs through Sept. 3, and Soler may then play in the instructional league in Mesa in October or the more challenging Arizona Fall League.

Garbey sees the potential in Soler to be an impact player.

"He can be really good," Garbey said. "We have to remember he's only 20, and he really didn't play with the national Cuban team, the elite team. He was one of the prospects to make the Cuban team. You can see his potential. He has a little more to learn, the way we play baseball here, what the organization expects from him."

It's little things, like Soler's footwork in the outfield, baserunning, his approach at the plate. Soler is fast, but a little gangly -- like a colt -- when he runs.

"He has a long stride," Garbey said. "He has an idea -- he has the instincts but the technique is not there yet."

There's no question Soler is a five-tool player -- he can hit for power, hit for average, field, throw and has speed on the bases. But he also possesses other characteristics that Garbey likes.

"He has the five tools, and the best thing about him is he's very coachable, very humble," Garbey said. "He's a good teammate. When you do that, the transition will be easier for you, because everybody wants to work with you, everybody wants to try to help you."

Someday, Garbey and Soler will talk. For now, the goal is to help the young outfielder as he takes his first steps toward the Major Leagues.

"If he makes it to Chicago, people will like what he brings to the table very much," Garbey said. "He has good bat speed, incredible power. When he hits the ball, people get out of the way.

"The only thing he has to continue to do is be more disciplined at the plate, pitch selection, and understand who he is and how they're going to pitch to him. He will be great."

Chicago Cubs, Jorge Soler