"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."