'Big Cat' Galarraga, pick of expansion litter, on power prowl

ROCKIE LAUNCHER

May 30, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Denver -- It would not have made sense. The Colorado Rockies were headed into their inaugural season, and the likely end would not justify the means necessary to sign a front-line first baseman in the free-agent market.

So they settled for Andres Galarraga.

"If I had had unlimited dollars and we could have gone after anybody, we might have gone in a different direction," said Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard, who still is marveling at the club's good fortune.

No one could have imagined what would happen next. The Big Cat's career was on the rocks. Galarraga was -- by some accounts -- just one more frustrating season from going home to Venezuela with his tail between his legs when the Rockies signed him to a no-frills, one-year contract in November 1992, but he landed on his feet.

He put on an offensive display that the freshman fans of Colorado will not soon forget, carrying a .404 batting average into July on the way to the first batting title won by an expansion player. And the hits just keep on coming.

He is batting .333 with 17 home runs and 45 RBIs through the first 48 games of the 1994 season, and his run production numbers are well ahead of last year's pace. Last week, he was in the midst of a 10-for-15 tear when the first-place Cincinnati Reds arrived for a four-game series. They did not leave happy.

"Andres, to me, is the National League equivalent of Kirby Puckett," said teammate Dante Bichette, who joined Galarraga and outfielder Ellis Burks in a three-pronged assault on National League pitching through the early weeks of the season. "He hits every pitch hard. He doesn't do anything but hit the ball hard, and hits it where it's pitched."

The three-man wrecking crew became two when Burks suffered a wrist injury two weeks ago, but Bichette and Galarraga continue to drive the Rockies' offense. Both rank among the league's top five in home runs, RBIs and total bases. Both are immensely popular in this suddenly baseball-crazed community,

but Galarraga has been the big guy from the beginning.

And why not? Last year's flirtation with .400 enabled the Rockies to transcend the usual expansionitis and give their record fan following something significant to cheer about. He didn't get there, but his .370 average equaled the highest by a National League hitter since 1948.

He turned out to be the right man for the job, but only because he was the right man for the price. He had averaged 21 home runs and 89 RBIs in his first four seasons as a full-time player with the Montreal Expos, but two years of injuries and inconsistency had made him an unknown quantity.

Galarraga explains his offensive renaissance in relatively simple terms. He was a productive hitter in Montreal, but his mechanics unraveled in an attempt to reduce his exorbitant strikeout ratio.

"I was doing well, but I struck out a lot," he said. "They wanted to change my mechanics, and I just got confused. They drove me crazy. Then came the injuries."

The Expos traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1991 season, which set in motion the chain of events that would bring him to Colorado. It was in St. Louis that he first met Don Baylor, whose work as a hitting coach with the Cardinals would turn out to be of great benefit when he became manager of the Rockies.

"In St. Louis, Don Baylor told me to open my left foot so I could see the ball with both eyes," Galarraga said. "He also told me to go the opposite way more. Things came together right away. We kept working at that, and after the All-Star break I started hitting."

Baylor remembers a veteran player whose confidence had been shaken badly during his final years in Montreal. Galarraga was confused at the plate and unable to make consistent contact.

"The confidence wasn't there," Baylor said. "When a guy has a couple of poor years in a row, that's a great time to work with him. We opened his stance up, but I never envisioned that it might work like this. We just had to find a way for him to stop swinging at pitches a foot inside. He needed a better look at the ball, and he needed to use the middle of the field."

Galarraga showed some promise in the second half of the '92 season, but the Cardinals weren't impressed enough to make an effort to keep him. The Rockies didn't know what to expect, but they were willing to take a chance on a one-year contract.

"It became obvious to us that he was the best of the names we could afford," Gebhard said. "We didn't consider it that much of a gamble. He's an outstanding defensive player and a plus guy in the clubhouse. I guess offensively it was a bit of a gamble, but overall we didn't feel that way. But, yes, he has exceeded our expectations. We didn't expect to get the National League batting champion with one phone call."

Galarraga didn't come in with a lot of expectations either, but the troubles he endured the previous two seasons made him appreciate his renewed success all the more.

"St. Louis didn't want to renew my contract," he said. "It's a

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