Galarraga fights to get word out on non-Hodgkin's lymphoma


Andres Galarraga, middle, is greeted at the plate by San Francisco teammate Barry Bonds, right, after driving in Jose Cruz Jr., left, with a two-run homer on May 3, 2003 when Galarraga played for the Giants.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 12:46 a.m.
The winter of 2004-05 brought us a reason to root, and it had nothing to do with Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson.
Andres Galarraga, a man who never quits and who might never retire, has without fanfare signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Mets. Galarraga, 43, is a man of hope, and the first hope has to do with his total of exactly 399 home runs. And, hopefully, counting ...
And yet, one home run isn't Galarraga's main goal, not by a long shot. Galarraga remains in baseball to get word out about fighting non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And to show it can be fought.
This cancer of the lymphatic system has struck Galarraga twice. The second time, he needed a stem cell transplant and two rounds of chemotherapy.
When he originally heard the diagnosis in 1999, Galarraga had a very normal reaction. ''The first time, I thought I was going to die,'' he told Newsday by phone from Venezuela. ''The first thing you think is, how can it happen to me?''
Characteristically, his fear was fleeting. The smile did not leave his famous face, not even after the lymphoma recurred. ''The second time, I wasn't really scared, because I prepared myself,'' Galarraga said.
That second setback, in November 2003, would have floored a lesser man, coming as it did three months before Galarraga reached his five-year anniversary. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has a five-year survival rate of 56 percent.
But Galarraga viewed the news as positively as possible. He figured there had to be a reason the cancer returned. The reason, he determined, was so he could spread the word about the importance of staying positive and motivated.
Galarraga's biggest plays now come with frequent visits to hospitals to keep patients' spirits high -- the way his are. When patients see the man known as ''The Big Cat,'' Galarraga hopes to instill the feeling that anything is possible.
Galarraga has his own goal, which he doesn't hesitate to announce.
''I want to play forever,'' he said without hesitation.
With a life lived so miraculously and fully, it's hard to believe in coincidences. He doesn't see any way his total of 399 home runs is a coincidence. It's motivation to keep striving. ''Four hundred is another level,'' he said. ''It helps me to keep going.''
Galarraga's greatest attribute isn't the strong and soft hands or even the gliding style that inspired the nickname of a lifetime (''It's from the way I move, like a b-e-e-e-g cat,'' he's said), but the will to rise when things look bleakest.
His career appeared in jeopardy after he posted .219 and .243 batting averages in the early '90s. Then Galarraga stunned folks by hitting .370 in 1993 for the Colorado Rockies, the greatest one-year rise for a batting champion.
Way before his cancer comeback stories, Galarraga was the hero to a ballplaying country, among the best and best-known forerunners to a generation of ballplaying Venezuelans such as Magglio Ordonez, Bobby Abreu, Freddy Garcia, Edgardo Alfonzo, Omar Vizquel, Carlos Guillen and Johan Santana.
As the comebacks have piled up, he's become an inspiration for everyone. Galarraga showed his home-run prowess wasn't a matter of thin air when he moved to Atlanta and hit 44 home runs in 1998. He missed the 1999 season after his initial diagnosis, then returned to hit .302 with 28 home runs in 2000.
It would be a mistake to count him out now, even at 43.
''He's one of the best teammates and one of the nicest guys I've ever been around,'' said Tom Glavine, a teammate then and now. ''It's such a shock, especially for a strong guy like him. But he didn't let it drag him down. He always came to the ballpark with a smile on his face. He enjoys life, enjoys what he does and has an infectious personality. If he's healthy, he's a great asset for a club.''
The key, according to Galarraga, is his attitude. You can see it on his face. ''I've always been very positive,'' he said. ''That's the best way to play baseball, and that's the best way for life.''
Galarraga returned to play for the Angels after doctors gave him the go-ahead last June. He batted 10 times, hitting a home run to bring him halfway to 400.
Now Galarraga is with his eighth team. ''I'm very excited to sign with the Mets. I'm feeling pretty strong and really good,'' he said. ''I feel I can help the team from the bench and play first base when they need me.''
But as Galarraga acknowledges, it isn't the Mets who need him most now. He is the inspiration for a world of patients to keep going, to keep striving.
Andres Galarraga's motivational tale can be seen on his video, ''Winning at Life: The Spirit of a Champion.'' It's available on his Web site, www.bigcat14.com. Proceeds go to fight lymphoma.

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