Felipe Alou had been told that the kid was fat, but the 17-year-old who stood before him on the field at the Central University of Caracas that day in 1978 was every bit of that and more, 245 pounds. Alou, a manager in Venezuela and a talent bird dog for the Montreal Expos, was dismayed.
"I believed it would be hard to find him a uniform," Alou recalls. But his years of prospecting for players in Latin America had taught Alou to be thorough in his determinations. He had also been told that the kid could hit. So Felipe let him hit a few pitches and, yes indeed, he displayed a solid, powerful swing. Then Alou tried him out on a few ground balls to third and saw that the kid had soft hands and a strong arm. "I left the running for later because I'd heard he was slow," says Alou. But he ran well enough, under seven seconds for the 60-yard dash. So Alou phoned Montreal, said he had a fat kid who could hit, field and even run a little, and got permission to sign him for $1,000.
When the youngster reported to Daytona Beach for spring training the next season, his excess weight caused a few snickers. But when the kid parked six balls into the pine grove off a batting machine, the laughing stopped.
In the decade since, the former fat kid has become the Big Cat. Or, as they say in Montreal, where he is an All-Star first baseman, Le Grand Chat, or more simply, Le Chat. At 27, Galarraga is powerful and agile, reliable on defense, and awesome at the plate. He is in the Top 5 in the National League in batting (.316), slugging (.574), runs (71), hits (129) and extra-base hits (58), the last of these coming at a pace that will put him close to 100 this season, a total only seven players have achieved. With 234 total bases, he is eyeing 400, which no one has reached since Jim Rice's 406 in 1978. He has also driven in 59 runs and slugged 21 homers—13 of which have either tied a game or given the Expos the lead.
Numbers don't quite convey, though, the man's Ruthian blend of girth and grace. His thick haunches are supported by lower legs that look like inverted bowling pins. His body is topped by thick, powerful shoulders. But despite his size—6'3", 235 pounds—Galarraga can move from the batter's box to first faster than most righthanded batters, no matter what their size. With his splay-legged stride he has stolen eight bases, and he leads Montreal with 16 infield hits. "I'm heavy, too, but my weight slows me down," says the Expos' 220-pound catcher, Nelson Santovenia. "Andres's weight seems to carry him along."
Defensively, Galarraga handles first base with aplomb. Instead of doing splits to pick off errant throws, he dives after them while somehow managing to keep a foot on the bag. He has good range on hard ground balls. "He doesn't just howdy-do the ball," says Montreal manager Buck Rodgers. "The only play any first baseman makes better than Andres is Keith Hernandez coming in to field a bunt and throw to second." Says Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, " Andres Galarraga has been the best player in the league this year, and people in the United States don't even know it."
Galarraga acknowledges such compliments with sparkling dark eyes and a serene, self-assured smile that reveals teeth as square and white as first base. The smile often serves as his bridge over the language barrier—his English is still makeshift—a way of conveying an impression of serene good humor to non-Spanish-speaking inquisitors. But it's also a smile of malicia—shrewdness. It's the smile of the happy fat kid patiently waiting for others to grasp what he has known all along. He often flashes it when at the plate.
"I smile to show I have confidence, especially when I take a bad swing," Galarraga says in Spanish. "It's nothing against the pitcher. It's just an inner confidence I have that I don't want to keep inside. Besides, if my teammates see me smiling and playing well, maybe it will be contagious."
Galarraga, the youngest of five children, grew up in a four-room house in a middle-class neighborhood of Caracas. He had a contented childhood, three brothers to play with, an older sister to dote on him and more than enough to eat. His mother, Juana, who worked as a domestic, made sure his plate was full of rice and black beans, his favorite dish. On special occasions she would prepare him a pastel of garbanzo beans, olives and meat. "Everyone always spoiled him," says Galarraga's wife, Eneyda. "Still, they do."
His father, Francisco, was an itinerant house painter, and Andres would often travel with him, working by his side. "Baseball was all I thought about when I painted," Galarraga says. "I saw myself hitting home run after home run. Ever since I was a youth I was a power hitter. I was always crazy to play the game."