They all know that, Rocker aside, this spring offers the Braves every reason to hope that they will fare better than they did in last year's World Series, when they were swept by the New York Yankees. The return of All-Star catcher Javy Lopez, closer Kerry Ligtenberg, middle reliever Rudy Seanez and popular cleanup hitter Andres Galarraga—all from injury or illness—plus the addition of speedsters Quilvio Veras and Reggie Sanders in an off-season trade make Atlanta far more formidable than the club that cobbled together 103 wins in 1999. In the 38-year-old Galarraga, the Braves also have the perfect salve for a clubhouse bloodied by the Rocker affair. "We've got the guy everybody hates," said one Braves pitcher at the opening of camp, as he threw an arm around Galarraga's shoulders, "and the guy everybody loves."
Baseball has few men revered by all races, cliques, media and even opposing fans, but Galarraga, the slugging first baseman from Caracas, has spent his career winning over everyone with his sunny demeanor. Now, it seems, Galarraga has fought off cancer, too, giving the Braves a feel-good story just when they need it most.
After spending last season undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in his lower back, and after spending weeks in bed recovering, weakened to the point at which he could stand neither noise nor light, Galarraga marched to the batter's box last Thursday for the first time in 17 months and received a standing ovation. He grinned, tipped his helmet and then rocketed a ground ball to University of Georgia third baseman Andy Neufeld. "I feel like a little kid right now," Galarraga said later.
From the moment he arrived in camp with the pitchers and catchers on Feb. 17, Galarraga has been banging balls all over the yard. "I was shocked the very first day," says manager Bobby Cox. "We have a workout, just a half hour catching ground balls one after another. It's hard to do, but he did it. Then he took extra batting practice and was hitting balls over 500 feet. I thought his stamina would be bad and he'd be sluggish and swinging real easy. But he has hit better than anybody in camp. The pitchers throw batting practice, and nobody ever hits 'em, but he did."
"I'm surprised too, believe me," Galarraga said. "It's natural, or lucky, or something. Everything is still there."
To say his teammates are delighted is an understatement. Galarraga hit 44 home runs and drove in 121 runs in 1998, and he is sure to lighten the offensive load carried by '99 National League MVP Chipper Jones. More important, although he has played only one season with Atlanta, Galarraga is, as Schuerholz calls him, "our spiritual leader." He is one of the few Braves who can—and does—build bridges between the white and black or Latin players, the young and the old, the quiet and the loud. "The Cat gets along with everybody, and everybody loves him," Weiss said. "That goes a long way."
In the Atlanta clubhouse last Friday morning, as various media types watched every move that Rocker made, righthander Greg Maddux looked up from his crossword puzzle and saw Galarraga sitting on the floor in front of the lockers of Guillen, Lopez and Eddie Perez, the backup catcher. Galarraga kept tapping his bat on the floor, speaking softly to his three teammates, grinning as usual. "That's him: sitting on the floor, talking to the guys," Maddux said, "and it'll be another group tomorrow. How important is chemistry? It's hard to out a number on it. but that's where he's huge. You see it, you feel it. That's what he brings."
Soon after, Galarraga stood at his own locker. The Braves' Grapefruit League opener that day, against the Kansas City Royals, was to be his first real test. He said he is feeling no pain and needs to go for checkups only every three months or so. Asked when he'd consider himself 100%, Galarraga said, "As soon as I get my first hit." He said he missed the little things while he was gone: the give-and-take before games, the jokes on the bench, the postgame dinners. He painted a lot when he could last year, 20 landscapes in oil, but that didn't come close to replacing what he missed most of all. "Hitting, man," Galarraga said. "I love it. Contact with the ball. I missed my home runs. I enjoy this game. I wanted not only to stay alive, but also to play baseball again. That's why I'm here now. That helped me get my life back."
An hour later Galarraga strode to the plate, the crowd standing and cheering again, the tiny stadium full under the blazing Florida sun. It was the first inning, two out and two on, with Jay Witasick on the mound. Galarraga took the first pitch, then poked a bloop RBI single into rightfield. In the third he lined a clean base hit into leftfield, driving home another run. When he got back to the dugout, his teammates swarmed him, smiling and patting him on the back.
The Cat is back. "Everybody's happy," Galarraga said afterward. "I think those guys are even happier than me."