The smile radiates from a thick lower lip, which droops to
reveal a set of teeth the color of eggshells. This is not a
Michael Jordan-light-up-a-planet smile but something slier, more
subtle, the expression of a man who has a private joke. Andres
Galarraga, the Colorado Rockies' first baseman, says people have
noticed the smile since he was a boy. Now it is his calling
card, something he leaves behind when he walks out of a room,
which would suggest that the Big Cat, his nickname since the
minor leagues, is actually a Cheshire. Galarraga has put
together some impressive numbers--he is one of only 14 major
league players to have won batting, home run and RBI titles--but
his indelible mark on the game might be something as ephemeral
as a grin.
"When I look over and see Cat smile, it relieves the tension and
pressure I'm going through if I'm having a bad day," Rockies
second baseman Eric Young says. "Cat smiles, and everything is
At various times Galarraga's smile has been a defense against
questions beyond the scope of his English, a reflex and, almost,
the logo on his line of sportswear. The emblem on his Big Cat
clothes, available at stores in Denver and in his native
Caracas, Venezuela, is a straight-faced cat peering over the top
of a baseball. "I didn't want a cat showing his teeth," says
Galarraga, who will turn 36 later this month. "There are too
many scary, angry cats. I wanted a nice cat, a happy cat."
The Big Cat himself is nice in a gentlemanly way, though the
litany of just-how-nice stories must come from other people.
Colorado manager Don Baylor mentions that Galarraga rented a car
during spring training this year for a minor leaguer who had no
credit cards, and the Rockies media guide notes that Galarraga
dug into his pocket (for $30,000) to help refurbish Andres Big
Cat Galarraga Field, a baseball diamond in Denver's Hispanic
neighborhood of Westwood. "I used to buy tickets to games for
poor kids," he says, "but then only one kid might remember one
night. [Fixing up the field] helps a lot of kids, and it's
Galarraga is certainly easygoing about his money. In September
1985, after he was called up for the first time by the Montreal
Expos, the team arranged for Galarraga to cash about $12,000 in
checks at a downtown bank before he returned to Venezuela for
the off-season. The grateful Galarraga insisted on shaking every
bank employee's hand and then ambled onto St. Catherine Street,
leaving the stash on the counter.
But he is not so carefree at the plate, where last year
Galarraga hammered 47 home runs and had 150 RBIs, both National
League highs. This season began ominously for him when he
suffered a fractured bone in his left hand after being hit by a
pitch thrown by Kevin Foster of the Chicago Cubs on April 15.
But after sitting out only four games Galarraga, who has been
plunked 100 times in his career because of the way he dives into
the ball, came back in fine form. At week's end he was hitting
.318 with 10 homers and 45 RBIs. His fifth home run gave him 252
for his career, breaking Tony Armas's record for a Venezuelan
major leaguer. The milestone was reached quietly in the U.S. but
not back home, where baseball is a national passion if not a
national pastime. Galarraga idolized Armas, with whom he played
on the winter league Caracas Leones as a 17-year-old.
The Big Cat has had two big league lives. The line of
demarcation is his trade before the '92 season from the Expos to
the St. Louis Cardinals, where he first met Baylor, the hitting
instructor who would salvage his foundering career. The story of
their relationship is an oft-told tale, but an earlier,
lesser-known trade helped Cat get to the majors in the first
In '79 Montreal coach Felipe Alou, who is now the team's
manager, basically exchanged a fighting cock for Galarraga. On a
scouting trip Alou had brought a rooster from the Dominican
Republic as a gift for Caracas Leones general manager Francisco
Rivero, who was so moved by his visitor's largesse that he
insisted Alou look at a kid first baseman who had just joined
the Leones. "A phenom from the city," Rivero said. Alou had
misgivings. He was struck by Galarraga's agility--Bob Bailey,
Galarraga's manager at Class A Calgary in '79, would christen
him Big Cat because of Galarraga's easy movements around the
bag--and he certainly liked his bat. But at 5'10" and a hefty
210 pounds, Galarraga was roughly the size of a housing
development. Alou said a player that size would be a hard sell
to management. Alou, however, persuaded Montreal to sign
Galarraga for $1,500.
A recurring theme in Big Cat's first life was that he was not
merely flesh and blood and 20% body fat, he was a lump of clay
to be molded. Galarraga was "coachable." That can be good. But
in Galarraga's case, it was disastrous. In 1987, his first full
season as a major league regular, he batted .305 and drove in 90
runs. The following year he led the league in hits, doubles and
strikeouts, and Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog proclaimed him
"the best first baseman playing the game today." In '89 the best
was not good enough for the Expos; they were going to make
Joe Sparks, the Expos' new batting coach, saw in Galarraga a man
with more power than his 29 homers the year before implied.
Sparks devised a way for Galarraga to pull the inside fastballs
that often bedeviled him. "He had this great power," says
Sparks, who is now a St. Louis scout, "but a lot of his hits
were jam shots to right center." Because Galarraga held the bat
high before dropping his hands into the hitting zone, Sparks
suggested he start with his hands low. This made theoretical
sense, except Galarraga had always used hand movement as his
swing's timing mechanism. Now instead of simply swinging,
Galarraga was raising his hands, then dropping them, then
swinging. He was a mechanical mess. He started accepting counsel
from everybody in a uniform. Meanwhile his average that season
plummeted 45 points, his extra-base hits dropped by 25 and his
already alarming strikeout total increased by five (to 158) in
37 fewer at bats.
"Andres is so mild-mannered, such a personable guy, that he
would always do what he was asked," says Jim Fanning, a Colorado
scout who was a Montreal special consultant in '89. "Once they
started to tinker, he was totally confused."
Galarraga had become a textbook out: Pitchers would bust heaters
in and then throw tantalizing sliders away that Galarraga would
wave at before making a U-turn to the dugout. He struck out 480
times between 1988 and '90, tying him for the sixth-highest
total in major league history for any three-year period. In 1991
he batted only .219.
The trade to St. Louis in November '91 offered Galarraga a
second chance for baseball success. In the second game of the
'92 season, however, Galarraga was struck by a pitch and
suffered a broken right wrist. The Cat came back in late May,
but by July 19 he was batting just .189. That's when Baylor, the
man Galarraga calls "my daddy in baseball," intervened.
"There were two turning points," Baylor says of that summer.
"John Franco was pitching in New York, and he sawed him off real
good; Cat rolled the ball back to the pitcher, a double play
with the bases loaded. The second was when [manager] Joe Torre
pinch hit for him in St. Louis. I knew Cat was upset. I walked
into the clubhouse and he had a Coke in his hand, and he was
trembling so much he couldn't drink it. Guys don't come to you
when they're hitting .400. I knew I could have this guy's
undivided attention. I told him if this experiment was going to
work, he would have to listen to me exclusively. Not his wife.
Not his brother. Not his attorney."
The experiment began with a radical new batting stance. Baylor
had the righthanded hitting Galarraga turn so he could see the
mound with both eyes. Then Baylor set Galarraga's front foot on
the edge of the batter's box closest to the third base dugout,
which forced him to stride into the ball. With his left leg
balanced on the ball of his foot, Galarraga vaguely resembled a
ballerina on pointe. Nevertheless, with the new stance, he
batted .301 in his final 45 games in St. Louis. When expansion
Colorado hired Baylor to be its manager after the 1992 season,
Galarraga, a free agent, wanted to follow his mentor.
Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard, who was Montreal's minor
league director during Galarraga's rise through the Expos'
system, figured that for $700,000 he was getting the best
righthanded defensive first baseman since Vic Power in the late
1950s and early 1960s, and a terrific clubhouse presence.
Gebhard couldn't have imagined he also was getting a batting
champion, for Galarraga batted .370 in 1993, striking out just
73 times in 470 at bats.
In the past five seasons when a pitcher has worked against
Galarraga, he has had to throw the ball way inside or into the
next zip code because while Galarraga still chases pitches--he
had 157 strikeouts despite a .304 average in '96--he doesn't
miss a pitcher's mistakes.
Galarraga has cut an important figure in Denver. His flirtation
with .400 in '93 made him a hero in a city that has a large
Latin population, and his 47 homers last season tied the record
for Latin players, set by the Toronto Blue Jays' George Bell
(and also equaled in '96 by the Texas Rangers' Juan Gonzalez).
"Cat," Gebhard says, "has won everybody's heart."
That is why the Rockies' G.M. faces a tough decision at the end
of this season. Galarraga is in the final season of a four-year
contract, and although he has told Gebhard that a two-year
extension would be welcome, none has been forthcoming. One
reason is that one of Colorado's top prospects is another first
baseman, Todd Helton. Gebhard is in no rush to commit to either
player. Baylor is skeptical of making a change, saying, "Right
now Helton isn't in the same ballpark--Cat puts a lot of fear
into guys on the mound." Regardless, Galarraga might be nearing
the end of his second baseball life.
Despite his uncertain future, the smile doesn't leave his face.
"I don't think being nice to everybody ever really hurt me,"
Galarraga says. "I know when I walk away, I can do it with my
head high." The grin grows even broader. "I always smile because
it's the best way to play the game."