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Andrés Galarraga in 2002. PUBLIC DOMAIN

This feature on then-Atlanta Braves first baseman Andrés Galarraga appeared on the Venezuela Online News website in September 2000.

Galarraga’s ‘miraculous’ comeback

By Ed Odeven

Typically, baseball players earn mass appeal and enthusiastic applause for their extraordinary feats on the field, such as tape-measure home runs, flashy fielding plays, a dominating pitcher’s complete-game shutout, etc.

Atlanta Braves first baseman Andrés Galarraga remains a fan favorite because he is more than just another solid ballplayer. He is a fighter, a resilient figure who has proven that you can overcome obstacles in life and in doing so, be an inspiration to people.

Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer, Galarraga missed the entire 1999 season while undergoing treatment and the grueling rehabilitation. But Galarraga’s time away from the game did not cause his skills to deteriorate.

Galarraga — El Gato as he is known in Venezuela — has returned this season and played the game with the same boyish fervor, relentless work ethic and omnipresent smile that has helped him establish himself as one of the game’s true gentlemen since he first broke into the major leagues with the Montreal Expos in 1985.

Through Tuesday’s games, Galarraga was batting at a .304 clip with 27 home runs, 27 doubles and 94 RBIs while appearing in 131 games. Before the All-Star break, he went 87-for-296 (.294) and slugged 20 homers to go along with his 62 RBIs.

During an interview after Sunday’s 7-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Big Cat offered his insights on what his comeback means to him.

“I’m very happy about the first half,” he said. “It was amazing and very special for me, for my family and the people that believed in me to come back and play baseball.

“From spring training, as soon as I got here, as soon as I started hitting, started playing … I started to feel better and I was able to help my team to be able to win.”

Galarraga was selected to the National League All-Star team for the fifth time in his stellar career. In July, he played in front of the home crowd at Atlanta’s Turner Field.

“The first one (appearance) is special, but I think this one is more special, you know to beat the cancer,” he said.

“To lose one year and come back from cancer, to be in Atlanta with my family on the field, the way everything has happened, it was unbelievable.

“It was very special for me to find my groove again to hit in that groove,” he said of his solid start this season.

Galarraga says he feels there’s a reason he is in the public spotlight.

“God gave me an opportunity probably to help some people to stay positive, to believe, to pray for everybody. That’s the main thing. Now, I feel better, more comfortable, more positive. All these things helped me in my life.”

He’s also been a valuable addition to the Braves, helping them contend for their sixth National League pennant since 1991.

“Well, he was our MVP of the first half, there’s no doubt about it,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said.

“He was absolutely great. He’s having a great year. From what he’s gone through and everything, it’s been a miraculous season.”

As the manager of the National League All-Star team, Cox relished the chance to see Galarraga earn a spot on the squad.

It gave “me a lot of satisfaction. Huge satisfaction,” Cox recollects. “It was something I had my fingers crossed for all year long because that was one of his goals. It means a lot to him, a lot to the team, a lot to the city.”

Braves center fielder Andruw Jones agreed that having Galarraga in the lineup is something special.

“It’s a miracle he’s come back,” said Jones, a native of Willemstad, Curacao. “Just him being on the field is an impact. He’s a great first baseman. I’m just happy he’s doing what he’s doing.”

When Galarraga arrived in Kissimmee, Fla., in mid-February for spring training, his teammates, coaches and the Braves’ front-office personnel were uncertain if he’d be able to return to the form that he had shown in previous seasons. Those doubts quickly vanished.

“We really didn’t known what to expect until the first day of spring training,” Cox said. “(Then) it was obvious to everybody he was going to be playing.”

Braves announcer Don Sutton says Galarraga’s health was always the primary concern.

“I don’t think anybody thought about it (Galarraga’s comeback) in terms of what he could do for the baseball team,” said Sutton, a Hall of Fame pitcher. “I think they thought about it in terms of what a miracle he had accomplished and what a miracle he had been part of.

“I”m not sure if it was until the All-Star break anybody really started to say, ‘Yeah, he’s driving in runs,’ because at first you think of a man’s life, his family, his health. And I have to admit, I was one of a number of people who was pessimistic.”

They aren’t anymore.

“He means a lot,” Cox said. “He’s a force in this lineup. Even if he’s not hitting well for a particular series, it’s still just the thought that he’s out there with the other team, and one swing of the bat can break the game wide open.”

That’s the instant impact he has had since he played for Buck Rodgers’ Expos. Including this season, Galarraga has slugged 20 or more homers 10 times. He has driven in 80 or more runs 11 times. And entering this season, he’s a .290 career hitter.

Galarraga says he’d like to play “at least one or two more years.” He yearns to be a member of the exclusive 400-homer club, something only 30 players have surpassed in the game’s illustrious history. It’s certainly a possibility. As of today, he has 359 career homers, and he appears to have reached his peak at the latter stages of his career.

“I think the older he gets, the better he gets,” said Jones, a 23-year-old superstar. “I want to be like that.”

Perhaps the youngster’s right. Galarraga won his first batting title at age 32 (a league-best .370 average for the 1993 Colorado Rockies); his first home run crown at age 35 (46 round-trippers with the ’96 Rockies); and back-to-back RBI crowns in ’96 and ’97 (150 and 140). He’s on pace to top the century mark in RBIs for five straight seasons, excluding last year. And with 411 RBIs from 1996-98, he became the first National Leaguer since Ducky Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals accumulated 414 from 1936-38 to exceed 400 RBIs in a three-year span.

As the regular season comes to a close, Sutton says Galarraga’s prestige and reputation around the league is quite remarkable — and growing.

“I have never seen other players respond to an opponent (like this),” Sutton said. “I think what that shows is there are hearts and lives in baseball that go beyond the sport itself. It’s not something they just do, he earned it. He earned it by his presence, the way he plays, by his faith and his strength and his battle to come back — and by putting up impressive numbers.

“He was a guy who before had your respect, and now he’s a guy who commands your respect.”

Fittingly, Galarraga is expected to win the 2000 National League Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Speaking about the reaction Galarraga has received at the 2000 All-Star Game and during the team’s travels this season, Sutton said:

“It was very emotional. Baseball can be left, right, left, right. Four balls, three strikes. Fair, foul, safe, out. Big hits, big plays. I think he added a personal and miraculous dimension to it. And just the emotion at the stadiums when we go in. Some of the places we’ve been, the reception that he’s gotten (is tremendous). And I know they are not for home runs and they’re not for a .300 batting average. They are for being part of what is not a minor miracle.

“Anybody that kicks cancer is something special.”