Driving homers and hope; Baseball: Andres Galarraga's booming bat in his return from cancer powered the Braves to a 15-game winning streak and has inspired survivors all over.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- The statuette of the Virgin Mary, rosary beads hanging from its neck, sits in his locker, inches from his first baseman's mitt and a couple of batting gloves. They accompany Andres Galarraga wherever he plays these days for the Atlanta Braves. There is also a grotto that Galarraga had built outside his family's home in West Palm Beach, Fla., as well as another shrine inside a room that he uses as an office.

It wasn't like this before, when Galarraga was known mostly for smashing monstrous home runs and flashing magnetic smiles. It wasn't like this before a cancerous tumor in his lower back threatened to take baseball -- if not life itself -- away from the garrulous Venezuelan.

"He's always believed [in God], but he's become a more religious man because he has faith that the Virgin saved him and took that cancer away from his back," said catcher Eddie Perez, who dresses next to Galarraga.

Seemingly little else about Galarraga has changed. After sitting out last season while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, Galarraga has returned with the same joyous personality that made him a clubhouse leader nearly everywhere he has played during a 15-year major-league career.

Just as important, Galarraga has seemingly not lost any of his skill. He has 10 home runs, 25 runs batted in and a .292 batting average.

One month after officially starting his comeback from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma with a game-winning home run against the Colorado Rockies on Opening Day, Galarraga is no longer startled by his strong start.

"I surprised myself in spring training," Galarraga said one morning last week, sitting by his locker at Turner Field, "the way I was hitting the ball so good. I started to feel more and more confident. But now I'm just playing the way I used to."

Said Braves manager Bobby Cox: "I didn't expect what we saw in spring training the very first day. He went through a very demanding fielding drill as if nothing was wrong with him. He was hitting balls 500-plus feet from the first pitch was thrown. It's an amazing, amazing story."

Much of what Galarraga did in Florida in March was overshadowed by Braves relief pitcher John Rocker, whose remarks in Sports Illustrated denigrated ethnic minorities, homosexuals, welfare mothers and New Yorkers. Though Rocker's return from suspension is still the focal point of the 20-7 Braves, whose 15-game winning streak ended last night in Los Angeles, Galarraga isn't unnoticed.

Galarraga, who will turn 39 next month, has become the oldest everyday player for the Braves since the legendary Henry Aaron, also 39, started 120 games in 1973. Aaron hit 40 home runs that year. If any questions were left by the time the Braves opened the season at home against the Rockies on April 3, they were gone shortly after the seventh-inning stretch. After making a key defensive play in the top of the inning, Galarraga broke a scoreless tie with a home run off Pedro Astacio.

"It was the most hair-raising 10 minutes I've ever witnessed in the 12 years I've been here," said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, one of the Braves' broadcasters.

In the clubhouse, Galarraga couldn't believe it himself.

"Like a movie, eh?" he said. "There are no words to say how happy I am."

The same can be said for the Braves.

"I knew this guy was something special," said outfielder Brian Jordan, the former Milford Mill star who has known Galarraga since they were briefly teammates with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992. "His smile lights the whole room up. It's like God has put him down here to play baseball. He's a great guy, a great leader."

"Miraculous, that's probably the word I've used most," said Braves general manager John Schuerholz, who spent the off-season reshaping his team with the idea that Galarraga might not be back, at least not as the same player who hit 44 home runs with 121 RBIs in 1998. "It's a remarkable turn of events in the human sense. ... It defies explanation."

Not that it hadn't been done before in baseball.

There was Eric Davis with the Orioles three years ago, helping Baltimore to the playoffs while still undergoing chemotherapy for prostate cancer. There was Darryl Strawberry in New York, fighting the same disease as Davis, inspiring the Yankees to their third straight world championship in a four-game sweep of the Galarraga-less Braves.

"It definitely helped me, knowing they had done it," Galarraga said. Support from countless fans and fellow players didn't hurt either.

This is the kind of good will felt toward Galarraga: Even the player brought in to replace him finds himself rooting for him.

"I was traded over here with the idea that if the Big Cat couldn't go, then I'd have to be ready," said Wally Joyner, who has made his share of comebacks during an injury-riddled 14-year career. "I'm one of many who are very happy and excited for him. It's one thing to come back from injury, it's another to come back from what he's come back from."

Galarraga's longstanding nickname seems even more appropriate now. Figuring the number of teams that have given up on him, figuring his resurrection in Colorado after his disastrous one-year stay in St. Louis that was compounded by his father's death, this is about Galarraga's third or fourth different life in baseball.

He says this is his second chance at life. "I didn't know if I was going to die," he said.

When he got the news that a second magnetic resonance imaging had come back with the same bad news of the first -- that the tumor in his back was malignant -- Galarraga cried. He thought about his father, Francisco, who died at age 75 of pancreatic cancer in 1992. He thought about how he was going to tell his wife, Eneyda, and their three daughters, who range in age from 2 to 14.

"I tried to put everybody on the same page," he said. "'Forget what I have. I'll be fine. I'll be strong. I'll be working. I'll come back to play baseball. The way I'm talking, the way I'm smiling, everybody feels the same way.' But they were probably crying behind me."

If the six rounds of chemotherapy three weeks apart and the one radiation treatment wasn't enough to temper Galarraga's positive outlook, then the hair he lost and the 35 pounds he put on his 6-foot-3, 235-pound body because of inactivity and water retention might have been.

Because of the location of the tumor, doctors wanted to give the bone time to regenerate. As a result, Galarraga was not allowed to start running until November and didn't start hitting until he got to spring training. It was during the time that Galarraga had started chemotherapy that he believes his comeback began.

With, he believes, a little divine intervention.

There was the well-chronicled dream in which Galarraga was being carried from his living room to his bedroom. "I tried to wake up to see Him, it was so realistic," he said. "It was God carrying me. When I woke up, I was so wet. After that, I started feeling better right away."

The kind of numbers Galarraga is putting up have made him more than just a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. If he continues to play this way, something else will be coming Galarraga's way -- his fifth All-Star invitation. Of course, this year's game will be played at Atlanta's Turner Field.

"The years I made the All-Star Game, I started like this," recalled Galarraga. "No question, I keep that in my head. It's something to focus on. The All-Star Game, the playoffs, MVP, keep my head busy on something more, something to play for. In the same way, I am trying not to put any pressure on me."

Galarraga is playing for others now, many of whom he doesn't even know. Stacks of letters that have come in from all over the world, the kind of hero worship to which even Galarraga is not accustomed.

"I think I have become more popular," he said. "Everywhere I go, I get an ovation."

Former Georgia Tech quarterback and Atlanta real estate developer Kim King was at home watching the Braves on Opening Day. King has been fighting cancer for about the same time as Galarraga and has undergone two bone marrow transplants.

"Just to know what he's been through, I was sitting there like a baby with the tears coming down my cheeks when he hit the home run," said King. "He's a real hero. He's really speaking for those of us who are fighting and have fought cancer. It gives people hope."

Galarraga estimates he received "about a million" pieces of mail since announcing he had cancer shortly after the 1998 season ended.

"They think that if I can do it, a lot of people can do it," said Galarraga. "I like it because I'm probably helping a lot of people, too ... to fight to stay alive. ... I thank God for everything. God saved me and let me play baseball."

Galarraga file

Age: 38

Birthplace: Caracas, Venezuela

Position: First base

Ht., Wt.: 6-3, 235

Bats/throws: R/R

Highlights: Led national league in home runs (47) and RBIs (150) in 1996....His .370 average in 1993 was the highest by a right-handed hitter eversince Joe Dimaggio hit .381 in 1939. ... Won Gold Glove in 1989 and 1990. ...Named to NL All-Star team in 1988, 1993, 1997 and 1998.

In Thursday's editions, the type of cancer Eric Davis had in 1997, when he played for the Orioles, was reported incorrectly. Davis had colon cancer.The Sun regrets the errors.
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