Wednesday, March 30, 2005

 

Last Roar for the Big Cat

In the my mind, Andres Galarraga, will always be an Expo. The number of these players dwindle more and more as time goes on. The best former Expos are already associated with other teams. Pedro is a Red Sock, Randy a Mariner, Larry a Rockie, and Moises a Cub. Vidro, if he has any sort of longevity at all, will be the first National. Maybe Vlad will be remembered in the white, blue, and red. Maybe. But Andres, with apologies to Denver, to me Andres belongs to Montreal.

It is a relief that it didn't end the way it could have for Andres and Les Expos. Andres was home grown in the Expos minor leagues, signed as an 18yr old in 1979. He had breakout 2nd year in the majors in 1987, followed up with a more impressive 3rd year, earning him his first All-Star appearence. It seemed that a star's career was blossoming with every unbelievable stab at first base. Something went wrong though. An injury noone knew about? A personal malise? We don't know, but for the next two seasons, the average dipped and questions arose. Was what we saw just a flash in the pan? An injury-plagued horror story of a 1991 season presumably answered that question for the franchise. Andres was shipped off to the Cardinals in the offseason.

Andres suffered a broken wrist at the break of the season in St. Louis and struggled again. Even before the power explosion of the mid to late 90's there was little room for a first baseman hitting under .250 with 10 HRs, regardless of how he shined in the field. Andres went back to the Expos after the season and the team said "thanks, but no thanks." It sure seemed like the right decision at the time. A young Cliff Floyd was slated to take over at 1st soon. Andres had no place in Montreal. Still, I thought it was a harsh way to deal with someone who I immediately identified with the 'Spos. Here it could have ended.

Then came the second chance. A small contract for an expansion team. Nothing more than a chance to play everyday until they found someone better, younger, or both. The thin mountain air revitalized Andres. A .370 average for the Rockies, gave him the batting title, a first for an expansion player and a Venezuelan. Andres was a huge figure in the clubhouse and the Rockies were in the playoffs by their third season. He was a hero in Latin America, a leader in the community, and a favorite of baseball fans everywhere. For the next five seasons he was everything he was supposed to be following the 1988 season. Galarraga headed for greener pastures in 1998, signing with the Braves. He had a great season, proving that it wasn't a change in altitude, but in attitude, that got Andres back on track.

Then came the cancer. It was the middle of 1999 when he was diagnosed. Cancer had taken his father away from him two decades previous. "Lucky" for Andres it was a treatable Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The process still took a terrible toll on his body. He gained 30 pounds, felt terrible. Andres was out the entire 1999 season. But remarkably, by the late fall, he was ready to get back to what his life was about. He worked daily. The tumors disappeared. He was ready to play baseball again. His 2000 season was nearly as good as 1998, as his years in Colorado. He hadn't just beaten cancer, he'd knocked it back so far it was as if it was never there and 1999 never existed.

Comeback player of the year wasn't good enough for the Braves, who aimed to get a top notch free agent (they ended up with Rico Brogna). Andres was forced to move on again. This time to the Rangers. The AL didn't suit Andres and he was soon back in the Senior Cirucit, protecting Barry Bonds as he headed toward 73.

Then came the homecoming. It had been over a decade, but it felt to me like he had just been there. Maybe it's because I stopped buying baseball cards around '90. Signed with the Expos for the 2002 season to split time wiith Lee Stevens, an early season trade gave Andres the starting job. It wasn't the same Galarraga as in years past. He was 41 now, a little slow with the bat, a little slow in the legs, but it didn't matter, it felt right. Some guys just belong to teams.

The past two seasons, Andres hung around to see if he could get to 400 HR. He said it was for Venezuela, but you know it was in good part for him, to put that last stamp on his career that seemed on the brink of ending twice. In the end he didn't get it, choosing to bow out in Spring Training this year. Playing at a level he wasn't accustomed to just wasn't fun. With the Expos now residing in DC, there's no chance for that one-day contract, to see him in the old hat one more time. 2002 will have to suffice.

At the age of 43 he had amassed an large amount of impressive stats. 5-time Al-Star, 2 time Gold Glover, 399 HR, 1425 RBI, .288 batting average. Andres' .370 average in 1993 for an expansion franchise remains one of the highest marks in recent years. His 1996 stats of 47 HR and 150 RBIs (most RBI in 30+ years when he accomplished this) are still impressive.
Comments:
I remember an interview with Gallaraga where he stated how his carrer was turned around when, in St-Louis, some hitting coach discovered his "dominant" eye was the right one. That's when he opened up his stance and became a better hitter.

I remember the gasps in the assistance when, during some game in 2002, they showed some "I remember 1987" clips on the centerfield giant screen. People just had trouble identifying the 1987 and 2002 versions of El Gran Gato.
 
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