Driving homers and hope

Baseball: Andres Galarraga's booming bat in his return from cancer powered the Braves to a 15-game winning streak and has inspired survivors all over.

May 04, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The statuette of the Virgin Mary, rosary beads hanging from its neck, sits in his locker, inches from his first baseman's mitt and a couple of batting gloves. They accompany Andres Galarraga wherever he plays these days for the Atlanta Braves. There is also a grotto that Galarraga had built outside his family's home in West Palm Beach, Fla., as well as another shrine inside a room that he uses as an office.

It wasn't like this before, when Galarraga was known mostly for smashing monstrous home runs and flashing magnetic smiles. It wasn't like this before a cancerous tumor in his lower back threatened to take baseball -- if not life itself -- away from the garrulous Venezuelan.

"He's always believed [in God], but he's become a more religious man because he has faith that the Virgin saved him and took that cancer away from his back," said catcher Eddie Perez, who dresses next to Galarraga.

FOR THE RECORD - In Thursday's editions, the type of cancer Eric Davis had in 1997, when he played for the Orioles, was reported incorrectly. Davis had colon cancer.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Seemingly little else about Galarraga has changed. After sitting out last season while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, Galarraga has returned with the same joyous personality that made him a clubhouse leader nearly everywhere he has played during a 15-year major-league career.

Just as important, Galarraga has seemingly not lost any of his skill. He has 10 home runs, 25 runs batted in and a .292 batting average.

One month after officially starting his comeback from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma with a game-winning home run against the Colorado Rockies on Opening Day, Galarraga is no longer startled by his strong start.

"I surprised myself in spring training," Galarraga said one morning last week, sitting by his locker at Turner Field, "the way I was hitting the ball so good. I started to feel more and more confident. But now I'm just playing the way I used to."

Said Braves manager Bobby Cox: "I didn't expect what we saw in spring training the very first day. He went through a very demanding fielding drill as if nothing was wrong with him. He was hitting balls 500-plus feet from the first pitch was thrown. It's an amazing, amazing story."

Much of what Galarraga did in Florida in March was overshadowed by Braves relief pitcher John Rocker, whose remarks in Sports Illustrated denigrated ethnic minorities, homosexuals, welfare mothers and New Yorkers. Though Rocker's return from suspension is still the focal point of the 20-7 Braves, whose 15-game winning streak ended last night in Los Angeles, Galarraga isn't unnoticed.

Galarraga, who will turn 39 next month, has become the oldest everyday player for the Braves since the legendary Henry Aaron, also 39, started 120 games in 1973. Aaron hit 40 home runs that year. If any questions were left by the time the Braves opened the season at home against the Rockies on April 3, they were gone shortly after the seventh-inning stretch. After making a key defensive play in the top of the inning, Galarraga broke a scoreless tie with a home run off Pedro Astacio.

"It was the most hair-raising 10 minutes I've ever witnessed in the 12 years I've been here," said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, one of the Braves' broadcasters.

In the clubhouse, Galarraga couldn't believe it himself.

"Like a movie, eh?" he said. "There are no words to say how happy I am."

The same can be said for the Braves.

"I knew this guy was something special," said outfielder Brian Jordan, the former Milford Mill star who has known Galarraga since they were briefly teammates with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992. "His smile lights the whole room up. It's like God has put him down here to play baseball. He's a great guy, a great leader."

"Miraculous, that's probably the word I've used most," said Braves general manager John Schuerholz, who spent the off-season reshaping his team with the idea that Galarraga might not be back, at least not as the same player who hit 44 home runs with 121 RBIs in 1998. "It's a remarkable turn of events in the human sense. ... It defies explanation."

Not that it hadn't been done before in baseball.

There was Eric Davis with the Orioles three years ago, helping Baltimore to the playoffs while still undergoing chemotherapy for prostate cancer. There was Darryl Strawberry in New York, fighting the same disease as Davis, inspiring the Yankees to their third straight world championship in a four-game sweep of the Galarraga-less Braves.

"It definitely helped me, knowing they had done it," Galarraga said. Support from countless fans and fellow players didn't hurt either.

This is the kind of good will felt toward Galarraga: Even the player brought in to replace him finds himself rooting for him.

"I was traded over here with the idea that if the Big Cat couldn't go, then I'd have to be ready," said Wally Joyner, who has made his share of comebacks during an injury-riddled 14-year career. "I'm one of many who are very happy and excited for him. It's one thing to come back from injury, it's another to come back from what he's come back from."

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