The smile radiates from a thick lower lip, which droops to reveal a set of teeth the color of eggshells. This is not a Michael Jordan-light-up-a-planet smile but something slier, more subtle, the expression of a man who has a private joke. Andres Galarraga, the Colorado Rockies' first baseman, says people have noticed the smile since he was a boy. Now it is his calling card, something he leaves behind when he walks out of a room, which would suggest that the Big Cat, his nickname since the minor leagues, is actually a Cheshire. Galarraga has put together some impressive numbers—he is one of only 14 major league players to have won batting, home run and RBI titles—but his indelible mark on the game might be something as ephemeral as a grin.
"When I look over and see Cat smile, it relieves the tension and pressure I'm going through if I'm having a bad day," Rockies second baseman Eric Young says. "Cat smiles, and everything is all right."
At various times Galarraga's smile has been a defense against questions beyond the scope of his English, a reflex and, almost, the logo on his line of sportswear. The emblem on his Big Cat clothes, available at stores in Denver and in his native Caracas, Venezuela, is a straight-faced cat peering over the top of a baseball. "I didn't want a cat showing his teeth," says Galarraga, who will turn 36 later this month. "There are too many scary, angry cats. I wanted a nice cat, a happy cat."
The Big Cat himself is nice in a gentlemanly way, though the litany of just-how-nice stories must come from other people. Colorado manager Don Baylor mentions that Galarraga rented a car during spring training this year for a minor leaguer who had no credit cards, and the Rockies media guide notes that Galarraga dug into his pocket (for $30,000) to help refurbish Andres Big Cat Galarraga Field, a baseball diamond in Denver's Hispanic neighborhood of Westwood. "I used to buy tickets to games for poor kids." he says, "but then only one kid might remember one night. [Fixing up the field] helps a lot of kids, and it's forever."
Galarraga is certainly easygoing about his money. In September 1985, after he was called up for the first time by the Montreal Expos, the team arranged for Galarraga to cash about $12,000 in checks at a downtown bank before he returned to Venezuela for the off-season. The grateful Galarraga insisted on shaking every bank employee's hand and then ambled onto St. Catherine Street, leaving the stash on the counter.
But he is not so carefree at the plate, where last year Galarraga hammered 47 home runs and had 150 RBIs, both National League highs. This season began ominously for him when he suffered a fractured bone in his left hand after being hit by a pitch thrown by Kevin Foster of the Chicago Cubs on April 15. But after sitting out only four games Galarraga, who has been plunked 100 times in his career because of the way he dives into the ball, came back in fine form. At week's end he was hitting .318 with 10 homers and 45 RBIs. His fifth home run gave him 252 for his career, breaking Tony Armas's record for a Venezuelan major leaguer. The milestone was reached quietly in the U.S. but not back home, where baseball is a national passion if not a national pastime. Galarraga idolized Armas, with whom he played on the winter league Caracas Leones as a 17-year-old.
The Big Cat has had two big league lives. The line of demarcation is his trade before the '92 season from the Expos to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he first met Baylor, the hitting instructor who would salvage his foundering career. The story of their relationship is an oft-told tale, but an earlier, lesser-known trade helped Cat get to the majors in the first place.
In '79 Montreal coach Felipe Alou, who is now the team's manager, basically exchanged a fighting cock for Galarraga. On a scouting trip Alou had brought a rooster from the Dominican Republic as a gift for Caracas Leones general manager Francisco Rivero, who was so moved by his visitor's largesse that he insisted Alou look at a kid first baseman who had just joined the Leones. "A phenom from the city," Rivero said. Alou had misgivings. He was struck by Galarraga's agility—Bob Bailey, Galarraga's manager at Class A Calgary in '79, would christen him Big Cat because of Galarraga's easy movements around the bag—and he certainly liked his bat. But at 5'10" and a hefty 210 pounds, Galarraga was roughly the size of a housing development. Alou said a player that size would be a hard sell to management. Alou, however, persuaded Montreal to sign Galarraga for $1,500.
A recurring theme in Big Cat's first life was that he was not merely flesh and blood and 20% body fat, he was a lump of clay to be molded. Galarraga was "coachable." That can be good. But in Galarraga's case, it was disastrous. In 1987, his first full season as a major league regular, he batted .305 and drove in 90 runs. The following year he led the league in hits, doubles and strikeouts, and Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog proclaimed him "the best first baseman playing the game today." In '89 the best was not good enough for the Expos; they were going to make Galarraga perfect.
Joe Sparks, the Expos' new batting coach, saw in Galarraga a man with more power than his 29 homers the year before implied. Sparks devised a way for Galarraga to pull the inside fastballs that often bedeviled him. "He had this great power," says Sparks, who is now a St. Louis scout, "but a lot of his hits were jam shots to right center." Because Galarraga held the bat high before dropping his hands into the hitting zone, Sparks suggested he start with his hands low. This made theoretical sense, except Galarraga had always used hand movement as his swing's timing mechanism. Now instead of simply swinging, Galarraga was raising his hands, then dropping them, then swinging. He was a mechanical mess. He started accepting counsel from everybody in a uniform. Meanwhile his average that season plummeted 45 points, his extra-base hits dropped by 25 and his already alarming strikeout total increased by five (to 158) in 37 fewer at bats.