Better than you remember: Andrés Galarraga

June 7th, 2020

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].

Player:
Career: MON 1985-91, STL '92, COL '93-97, ATL '98-2000, TEX '01, SFG '01, MON '02, SFG '03, ANA '04
Accolades: All-Star (1988, '93, '97-98, 2000); Silver Slugger ('88, '96); Gold Glove ('89-90)

Andrés Galarraga is one of those players whose name makes you smile just upon hearing it. Doesn’t it? Andrés Galarraga. Big Cat! You’ve got a grin on your face already, don’t you? That’s partly because of Galarraga’s smile itself, no doubt. Galarraga has a smile that lights up a whole clubhouse, which is good, because Galarraga was always smiling.

Galarraga is such a fun character, with such an inspiring story, that one almost forgets just how incredible of a hitter he was. In case you’ve forgotten, though, this is a guy who once hit a ball 529 feet. And that’s not “Mickey Mantle hit the ball 700 feet once” lore, either. They’ve even proven it. The guy was no joke.

Galarraga was, amusingly, originally a utility player, back when he first began playing for Venezuelan Winter League team Leones del Caracas as a teenager. (He’d play for the team for 15 years, long after he’d established himself as a big leaguer.) He was also a little overweight, at least according to the Expos, but they signed him anyway. They noticed immediately that, despite his size, he was remarkably nimble once they put him at first base, which is where his “Big Cat” nickname came from. He did struggle with the bat, though, which, later in life, he would attribute to homesickness and the difficulty he had playing in a country where he did not speak the primary language.

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He’d eventually figure it out a little in Montreal, and he had a terrific year in 1988, leading the National League in hits and total bases while bashing 29 homers. (As always, he didn’t walk much: Galarraga was always, gloriously a free swinger.) He struck out too much to go with that lack of walks, though, and in '91, after an injury-riddled ineffective season (at the age of 30, no less), and with the fan base running out of patience with him, the Expos traded him to the Cardinals for starting pitcher Ken Hill, taking away Galarraga from the Expos right when they were getting good.

St. Louis was a mess for Galarraga thanks to a broken right wrist early in the 1992 season, but there was a positive that would change the direction of his career: He worked with Cardinals hitting coach Don Baylor, who recommended the Rockies sign Galarraga when he became Colorado's manager. Galarraga was an absolutely perfect fit for Coors Field, where his strikeouts didn’t really matter and his massive strength and batted-ball contact turned him into an absolute monster.

In the Rockies' inaugural season in 1993, he hit .370 -- the highest batting average for a right-handed hitter since '38 -- and won the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award. He knocked 22 homers that year, and he’d learn, as he got older, to become more of a power hitter than a contact one.

By 1996, he was hitting 47 homers and driving in a stunning 150 runs. Much of this was credited to Colorado’s high altitude, and many in baseball thought the Blake Street Bombers were a bit of a mirage. But how many people have you seen hitting 47 homers and driving 150 runs in Coors Field this century? How many have you seen hitting .370?

Galarraga was getting older at this point, though; by the end of his Rockies contract, even though he was an All-Star, he was already 36. They moved him aside for Todd Helton, which you can’t really blame them for, so he signed a three-year deal with the Braves, a team with tons of young stars but eager for a big veteran bat in the middle of the lineup. In his first season in 1998, he gave the Braves all they could have hoped for: 44 homers, a .397 OBP and a trip to the NL Championship Series. (That NL Division Series win over the Cubs was the only postseason series victory of Galarraga’s career.)

But then, during the following Spring Training, Galarraga began to sustain back pains of a mysterious origin. After many treatments failed, doctors figured it out: He had a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma tumor on his vertebra. He immediately began chemotherapy and missed the entire 1999 season. Teammates past and present rallied around him, and when he returned for the 2000 season on Opening Day, he was greeted like a conquering hero.

He helped the Braves back to the postseason that year, winning his unprecedented second Comeback Player of the Year Award, but Atlanta did not re-sign him when his contract expired.

Then he became the roaming big bat he was probably always destined to be. He played for Texas and San Francisco in 2001, back to Montreal one last time in '02, and then back to San Francisco in '03, where he’d play his final postseason game. Then his cancer returned, but then he beat it again, coming back for one more year in '04, playing seven games with the Angels and hitting his 399th, and final, home run.

After one brief Spring Training flirtation with the Mets in 2005, Galarraga retired, having put together one of the most deeply pleasant, and downright inspirational, careers in recent baseball history. And he was smiling until the very end. Baseball doesn’t always make you happy. But Andrés Galarraga, the Big Cat? He always did.

Send me the player you’d love to have me write about at [email protected].