This cat has plenty of lives left
Galarraga hoping to reach 400-homer mark with Mets
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Baseball has been a lifeline to Andres Galarraga since his days as a teenager in Caracas, Venezuela. At the age of 43, the game not only keeps the cancer survivor feeling young, it keeps him feeling alive.
"Baseball is in my blood, and it motivates me," said Galarraga, who will be 44 in June. "For me, it helped save me. If you have cancer and you don't play baseball or a sport or anything like that, be motivated by your family, your kids, or something you like to do to beat it. Baseball is my big reason why I am here today."
"Here" for Galarraga is in Mets camp, as a minor league free agent, who is trying to earn a spot on the big league club and is competing with Doug Mientkiewicz for playing time at first base.
"My goal is to show I am healthy and I can help this team," Galarraga said. "We have a good team, and I want to be part of it."
Galarraga remains jovial, as always, and, for such a really big man -- probably bigger than ever, standing at 6-foot-3 and weighing a hefty 265 pounds -- he still shows signs of the nimbleness at first base that earned him the nickname "Big Cat." And yes, he can still hit.
Galarraga is one home run shy of joining the 400-home-run club, and his displays of power during batting practice are a sight to behold for more than nostalgic reasons. With almost 20 years of big league experience, he mentors the Latin players, but the bilingual Galarraga can also share his knowledge in English.
But the Mets did not bring in Galarraga to be a coach -- yet. The organization brought him to camp to see if he can still play.
"I hope he has a great spring to give him a chance to make the club," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "He has tremendous respect from his peers. He has been there, and he can teach and can motivate, and he can still hit. Andres has got a chance. Nobody has secured a job yet. Competition is what Spring Training is about, and Andres is competitive. He's in the mix."
Mets general manager Omar Minaya's history with Galarraga goes back to the days when both worked in Montreal. Minaya said he has witnessed firsthand the positive effects of having the slugging first baseman around, both on the field and off. But like Randolph, Minaya, though encouraged by what he sees, is not offering the veteran a free pass to the 25-man roster.
Galarraga, like everybody else, is going to have to earn it.
"First of all, I think he can be a productive offensive player, and he has always played good defense," Minaya said. "That said, what he brings as a person to the club is invaluable. When Vladimir [Guerrero] almost had the 40-40 year in Montreal [in 2002], I think Andres had a lot to do with that. Vladdy went off last September for Anaheim, when they brought up Andres. Think about that. To me, there are players that make other guys better, and Andres is one of those. I call him the extra coach. He is also a guy who has been sick, so with him, it is day-to-day."
Galarraga's health history is not a subject the player shies away from, and it never has been. He grimaces when he mentions missing the entire 1999 season while with Atlanta after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and the six months of treatment, including chemotherapy, he endured. He returned in 2000 for three seasons, but in the winter of 2003, the cancer returned. Galarraga had surgery that November and underwent a stem cell transplant in February of 2004.
"When they told me it came back for a second time, it was easier because I had beat it before, and I knew how to do it," Galarraga said. "I was not scared. It was the opposite; I was more motivated to play again. I am going to end my career the way I want to, not because of cancer." "
His actions spoke louder than his words.
Anaheim signed Galarraga to a minor league deal last August, and he joined the Angels just more than a month later after hitting .304 with four home runs and 19 RBIs in 25 games at Triple-A. He played in seven games for the Angels, including one start, and delivered a pinch-hit home run, the 399th of his career, on Oct. 1.
"I have to thank Anaheim for the opportunity they gave me after coming back from cancer," he said. "I am very grateful to that organization. They gave me a chance for me to see if I could still do it and if I had the desire to keep on playing."
Galarraga feels he can still play, but whether he breaks camp with the Mets as the starter at first base, the backup, or in Triple-A, the outcome will have little effect upon his legacy in Venezuela. He is the all-time leader for Venezuelan-born players in home runs and RBIs and has been one of the country's most popular players since he made his big league debut with the Expos in 1985. The former star at Enrique Fermi High School in Caracas, who signed with Montreal in 1979, said he does not know when he is going to retire, even though he could have hung up his cleats years ago.
"Let me tell you something, if he runs for president of Venezuela, he is going to win," said Mets second baseman Miguel Cairo, also from Venezuela. "He's an idol, a Venezuelan idol that all kids want to be like. All the things he has gone through, his personality, his family and everything is a great example for the people in our country."
For his part, the five-time All-Star smiles that famous smile when he thinks of Venezuela, his fans, and the positive impact he has had upon lives during his career. He accepts the responsibilities that come with being a baseball player and a cancer survivor, and said he would not change a thing.
"You will get your life back from cancer," Galarraga said. "It's hard when you lose your hair and you're sick and you are throwing up. It's hard to stay positive when people start looking at you different and start treating you different, but you can overcome it. That's why I am here, and others can do it, too."
Now comes the part he lives for -- playing baseball.
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.