The National Weather Service database claims it was hot
in Salt Lake City on August 5, 2004. 96-degrees; cloudless blue sky. A summer
evening no different than any other. The difference, and what I remember, is
the stadium, crowd, smells—distinctive sweetness of kettle corn, franks, beer, sweat—and
a once great player who found himself with a minor league contract, and a
desire to get back to the big leagues.
The player’s appearance was widely advertised in the
local media and the fans came to see him. They lined up along the first base
side against the low concrete wall separating seats from field; hoping for a
glimpse, a word, an autograph. It was the final month of a disappointing season
for the home team. The Salt Lake Stingers were in the Pacific Coast League’s
cellar, but its parent club, Anaheim Angels, were set for another division
title and an October appearance. The player was Andrés Galarraga and the Angels
signed him to add depth, experience, and flexibility to its roster.
Andrés had a reputation for an unflagging enthusiasm. His
demeanor was as much his trademark as his distinctive white hair, towering home
runs, and dazzling defensive play at first. His nickname was “Gran Gato”—Big Cat—earned for his agility and
quickness. Time had eroded the skills his nickname spoke of, but the name was still
his, and only his. He started his career in Montreal in 1985, and on a hot
August evening in 2004 he was in Salt Lake City trying to get back. It hadn’t
been easy, either.
In February 1999 Andrés was diagnosed with
cancer—non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—in his spine. The entire season was lost while he
received treatment. Big Cat beat the disease, and came back strong in 2000, but
the diagnosis made its mark. He said, in an interview with The Sporting News’ Jon Heyman:
“I felt like I’d be dying
any time. The way everyone was looking at me, the way everyone knew.”
The cancer recurred in early-2004, and Big Cat beat it
again, but he was without a team. In June he announced, in his hometown of
Caracas, Venezuela, that he was ready to play. It was two long months before an
offer was made. His first stop was Salt Lake City, and his desired destination
Anaheim. He wanted two more major league home runs. He had 398 for his career,
and 400 was an appealing benchmark. The clock was ticking. He was 43 with fading
When the players began to appear on the field for
pre-game warm ups a buzz of anticipation enveloped the crowd. The fans craned
their necks as each player appeared on the field. A mellow roar built from
scattered applause as Andrés came into view. His distinctive white hair shimmering
in the thick evening light. The fans chanted, “Big Cat! Big Cat! Big Cat!” He
stopped, looked at the fans, removed his cap.
Andrés was there to play baseball, but instead of
continuing to the field to prepare for the game he went directly to the wall of
fans. He stopped at the first in line, spoke a few words, and signed a ball. He
steadily moved down the line, stopping at each person, speaking a few words,
grinning, and signing a card, ball, or hat. I was there that night; waiting in
line, anxious, and hopeful he would make it to my position, closer to the end
than the beginning, before the players were called in for the National Anthem.
I had seen Andrés Galarraga once before. It was a
spring game in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was playing for the Giants, and before
the first pitch Andrés and Barry Bonds—along with Barry’s young son—wandered
the edges of the ballpark; stopping frequently to talk, laugh, and interact
with fans. Barry had an unfriendly reputation. The opposite of Andrés’, but on
that overcast March afternoon everything was a smile and laugh. I didn’t
participate in the dialogue, but instead watched with admiration.
In Salt Lake City my attitude was different. I came to
see Andrés Galarraga; wish him luck, get an autograph, and be part of his
comeback. I was nervous, my palms likely damp, when Andrés arrived at my position.
I handed him a clipboard, two cards attached, and a felt-tipped
pen. I said, “Welcome back.”
Andrés looked up at me—with the help of the concrete
floor I was a few inches taller—smiled his famous lopsided grin, said, “It’s
good to be back.” He signed the cards, handed back the clipboard and pen.
It was a brief encounter. I wanted to talk to him.
Tell him how much I admired his play, his courage, and his impending comeback. Maybe
tell him I saw the grand slam he crushed in Miami in 1997, or his comeback home
run on opening day in Atlanta in 2000, but I settled for “welcome back,” and “thank
The Stingers lost that night; outscored by the Omaha
Royals, 6 – 1. I know because I looked it up. I don’t remember anything about
the game, or Andrés’ performance. The box score is lost to me; seemingly
unavailable online. I’m certain Andrés was the designated hitter, but how he played
is a mystery. He spent all of August in a Stingers uniform, and he hit well—
batting .304, with four home runs, and 19 RBI, in 111 plate appearances.
He played well enough to get a September call-up to
Anaheim; it would be his last appearance in the Show, but his playing time was
limited. Appearing in seven games with a meager ten at bats. He hit a
single home run with the Angels, and never made it to 400. I hope it doesn’t
bother him. He was a terrific player, and his appearance in Salt Lake City on that
hot August night is one of my favorite baseball memories.