Felipe Alou had been told that the kid was fat, but the 17-year-old who stood before him on the field at the Central University of Caracas that day in 1978 was every bit of that and more, 245 pounds. Alou, a manager in Venezuela and a talent bird dog for the Montreal Expos, was dismayed.
"I believed it would be hard to find him a uniform," Alou recalls. But his years of prospecting for players in Latin America had taught Alou to be thorough in his determinations. He had also been told that the kid could hit. So Felipe let him hit a few pitches and, yes indeed, he displayed a solid, powerful swing. Then Alou tried him out on a few ground balls to third and saw that the kid had soft hands and a strong arm. "I left the running for later because I'd heard he was slow," says Alou. But he ran well enough, under seven seconds for the 60-yard dash. So Alou phoned Montreal, said he had a fat kid who could hit, field and even run a little, and got permission to sign him for $1,000.
When the youngster reported to Daytona Beach for spring training the next season, his excess weight caused a few snickers. But when the kid parked six balls into the pine grove off a batting machine, the laughing stopped.
In the decade since, the former fat kid has become the Big Cat. Or, as they say in Montreal, where he is an All-Star first baseman, Le Grand Chat, or more simply, Le Chat. At 27, Galarraga is powerful and agile, reliable on defense, and awesome at the plate. He is in the Top 5 in the National League in batting (.316), slugging (.574), runs (71), hits (129) and extra-base hits (58), the last of these coming at a pace that will put him close to 100 this season, a total only seven players have achieved. With 234 total bases, he is eyeing 400, which no one has reached since Jim Rice's 406 in 1978. He has also driven in 59 runs and slugged 21 homers—13 of which have either tied a game or given the Expos the lead.
August 7, 1988
Numbers don't quite convey, though, the man's Ruthian blend of girth and grace. His thick haunches are supported by lower legs that look like inverted bowling pins. His body is topped by thick, powerful shoulders. But despite his size—6'3", 235 pounds—Galarraga can move from the batter's box to first faster than most righthanded batters, no matter what their size. With his splay-legged stride he has stolen eight bases, and he leads Montreal with 16 infield hits. "I'm heavy, too, but my weight slows me down," says the Expos' 220-pound catcher, Nelson Santovenia. "Andres's weight seems to carry him along."
Defensively, Galarraga handles first base with aplomb. Instead of doing splits to pick off errant throws, he dives after them while somehow managing to keep a foot on the bag. He has good range on hard ground balls. "He doesn't just howdy-do the ball," says Montreal manager Buck Rodgers. "The only play any first baseman makes better than Andres is Keith Hernandez coming in to field a bunt and throw to second." Says Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, "Andres Galarraga has been the best player in the league this year, and people in the United States don't even know it."
Galarraga acknowledges such compliments with sparkling dark eyes and a serene, self-assured smile that reveals teeth as square and white as first base. The smile often serves as his bridge over the language barrier—his English is still makeshift—a way of conveying an impression of serene good humor to non-Spanish-speaking inquisitors. But it's also a smile of malicia—shrewdness. It's the smile of the happy fat kid patiently waiting for others to grasp what he has known all along. He often flashes it when at the plate.
"I smile to show I have confidence, especially when I take a bad swing," Galarraga says in Spanish. "It's nothing against the pitcher. It's just an inner confidence I have that I don't want to keep inside. Besides, if my teammates see me smiling and playing well, maybe it will be contagious."
Galarraga, the youngest of five children, grew up in a four-room house in a middle-class neighborhood of Caracas. He had a contented childhood, three brothers to play with, an older sister to dote on him and more than enough to eat. His mother, Juana, who worked as a domestic, made sure his plate was full of rice and black beans, his favorite dish. On special occasions she would prepare him a pastel of garbanzo beans, olives and meat. "Everyone always spoiled him," says Galarraga's wife, Eneyda. "Still, they do."
His father, Francisco, was an itinerant house painter, and Andres would often travel with him, working by his side. "Baseball was all I thought about when I painted," Galarraga says. "I saw myself hitting home run after home run. Ever since I was a youth I was a power hitter. I was always crazy to play the game."
For the first three of his seven years in the minors, from 1979 to '81, at West Palm Beach, Calgary and Jamestown, the Expos chained Galarraga to the bench; he averaged only 160 at bats a season. In '81, homesick and depressed, he almost quit, but visits from Eneyda, his hometown sweetheart, buoyed him. In the fourth season, Alou made certain the Expos used him more. "It seemed like he didn't have a job," says Alou, 53, who came from the Dominican Republic to the big leagues and lasted 17 years. "I asked, "What about Galarraga?' Maybe it was because he was so young, and he couldn't speak the language. You see many a young Latin player sent home before he can prove himself."
In 1982, the Expos sent Galarraga back to West Palm, and this time he responded. In 338 at bats, he hit .281 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs. He also found a permanent position at first. In '81, he had played all over the place. "We had to figure out what he did best, and it wasn't easy," says Jim Fanning, then an Expos' vice-president and now one of their radio and television, announcers. "Believe it or not, we thought he could catch, play third, play first. We even tried him in the outfield."
First base suits Galarraga just fine. "I don't have to worry when I'm playing there," he says, "and it makes it much easier to hit. The other positions are much more work, and catchers get injured too much."
In 1984 Galarraga married Eneyda, and she came north. That season he hit 27 homers at Double A Jacksonville. After a 25-homer season at Triple A Indianapolis in '85, he was called up to Montreal in September. Alas, he hit only .187, then tacked on a dismal .149 average in spring training the next year. Panicked, Montreal signed free-agent Jason Thompson, and early in the season they platooned him with Galarraga. But the Cat relaxed and soon nailed down the job, batting .271 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs.
Early last season Galarraga hurt his thumb. The injury proved a blessing. Forced by the pain to cut down on his swing, he became adept at driving the ball to right. He batted better than .300 (.305, seventh in the league) for the first time in his pro career. "That made me very confident," Galarraga says. "But I was frustrated because I hit only 13 home runs." The thumb healed during the winter, and now he can swing with power in either direction. The rightfield singles of '87 have become the rightfield doubles and home runs of '88.
Although he may be a well-kept secret in the U.S., as Herzog suggests, Galarraga's celebrity in Venezuela is enormous. Playing winter ball in a land where the game is supreme, he is the nation's preeminent sports hero; fans arrive hours early for games just to watch him take batting practice. Santovenia recalls spotting Galarraga from an opposing dugout before a game in Caracas last year and signaling Andres to meet him on the field. "As soon as he walked out, there was clapping and cheering," Santovenia says. "People went crazy just to see him. I couldn't believe it."
Galarraga is proud of his stature as a Venezuelan ballplayer. He keeps the baseball cards of other Venezuelan players, such as Manny Trillo and Dave Concepcion, as well as his own card, taped above his locker. Nevertheless, he tries to maintain a low profile. While in Caracas, the Galarragas and their 2½-year-old daughter, Andria, live in a simple apartment which is only four blocks from his parents' home. "When he's in Venezuela, he's relaxed and very organized," Eneyda says. "He makes time for everyone, especially his mother."
He also has time for painting—landscapes, not houses—a hobby he has pursued since high school. "I never studied art," Galarraga says. "I learned how to combine the colors, and the things I have done, people have liked. Knowing I could teach myself [to paint] helped me in baseball."
He works mostly in watercolors and avoids portraits. "I don't like to paint the faces," he says. "It's too hard." Handling the brushes relaxes him. "In painting, I'm by myself. In baseball, I thrive on the electricity I get from fans, the heat, sweat and emotions. I like it when they get involved."
There are signs that Galarraga's fame is spreading in Montreal. Recently he was recognized by a ticket taker for the Metro and given a free ride. One reason he has become better known, apart from his .316 batting average, may be his surname, which French-speaking fans love to pronounce. It has become the alltime favorite introduction of the Expos' 44-year-old P.A. man, Richard Morency. "On the street, people are always saying, 'Richard, give us another shot of Ga-lar-ra-ga' " Morency says.
If the former fat kid from Venezuela keeps playing the way he has this year, Morency will be saying Ga-lar-ra-ga for many years to come.