Sunday, May 14, 2017

Gran Gato and Me

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 opportunity.

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 you.”  
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.

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