Baseball's Best All-Star Story: Galarraga

NEWSDAY

Last year at this time, as chemotherapy drugs coursed through Andres Galarraga's body, he wondered whether he'd ever make it back to the ball park.

Last Tuesday night, with his body cleansed of cancer, according to MRI after MRI, Galarraga wore his signature full-face smile as he prepared to start his first All-Star Game he had a hit in two at bats, in his own home park no less. This is a story more likely for a Turner channel than for Turner Field.

A few from the hyper-critical stat-crazed seamhead set thoughtlessly questioned Galarraga's inclusion on the squad, courtesy of his Braves Manager Bobby Cox. But those are people who don't know the story, or the man. Who don't know know the Braves or baseball. Nobody embodies the spirit of an All-Star better than Galarraga, whose raw numbers--.293, 20 homer, 62 RBIs--don't truly demonstrate the impact he has on everyone around him, and on many of those who admire him from afar. Galarraga sounded almost apologetic to be starting in place of injured home-run king Mark McGwire. But we should be thanking him, not nodding thoughtlessly to his unnecessary apologies.

Joe Torre, himself a cancer survivor, called Galarraga 'the greatest story in sports." And many of those who know Galarraga believe he is the greatest person in the game. Braves GM John Schuerholz, who's been around baseball for decades, said it's Galarraga and Buck O'Neill, then everyone else. Braves coach Pat Corrales swears Galarraga smiles even more now than before he was diagnosed with cancer 17 months ago. Galarraga said it's his mission to show other cancer sufferers that the disease can be beaten, that a seriously ill person can get stronger, and even better.

'This is going to be something really special," Galarraga said hours before game time. "I can't wait to see what happens."

What's happened already is something to behold, and to recount. When doctors told Galarraga he had cancer, he had the same first reaction as Torre, who coincidentally managed Galarraga in St. Louis. "When you hear that C word, the only thing that's associated with it is death," Torre said. "But when you talk to the doctors, it opens your eyes. It's not really the black hole you think."

"When the doctor told me, I thought I was going to die the next day."said.

Nonethless, Galarraga managed to summon his strength to convey some sliver of optimism to wife Eneyda and their three daughters. He knew he couldn't wait because he didn't want them to hear it via TV or radio. Still, he needed a soft way to break the terrible news. "I told her I had lymphoma and that I'd probably miss the year," Galarraga said.

Miss the year? Who figured a player could ever return at his age--he turned 39 last month--after missing a year with cancer? Nobody could be sure. The Braves took veteran Wally Joyner from the Padres just in case Galarraga could not make it back to first base. Galarraga himself had doubts. "Sometimes, when you're on the disabled list and you miss 15 days, you feel lost, you feel strange," Galarraga said. "Last year when I was getting bigger and I was swelling, I looked in the mirror and I felt a little negative." During his six rounds of chemotherapy last summer, Galarraga ballooned to 280 pounds, and he suffered from nausea. When he was done with chemo, he had a month of radiation. At times he could scarcely recognize himself.

There were times Galarraga was so ill he don't know how he moved. "I felt God carrying me from my living room to my bedroom," Galarraga said.

Cox said, "He believes the Angels are looking out for him."

Galarraga traveled with the team last September and October, and accepted a World series ring without feeling he earned it. That gave him even more incentive to return.

Last Feb. 18 was the magic day. He stepped onto a backfield at the Braves' complex at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and let'er rip, sending rockets all over the place. Remarkably, he was the same man who'd left them in 1998. "I thought I'd really be careful with him, really baby the ball," Braves third-base coach Ned Yost recalled. "But I hit one he had to range for, and I said, 'Gally, I'm sorry.' And he said, 'No, I'm perfect.' From that day, I haven't thought about holding him at third. He's absolutely the same player. He hasn't missed a beat, or even a tick of a beat. His bat hasn't slowed, his range hasn't changed, and his enthusiasm and smile definitely haven't, either."

Galarraga won his first regular-season game back at Turner Field with a diving catch and a home run off Pedro Astacio. The opponent was the Rockies, Galarraga's previous team. The script keeps improving.

Tuesday night, fans broke into cheers when they saw Galarraga carrying his 2-year-old daughter Andrianna and escorting 14-year-old Andria and 8-year-old Katherine onto the field during touching pregame ceremonies. Galarraga's smile could be seen clear in Buckhead.

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