Of all the nicknames given to baseball players over the years, one that should not be forgotten belongs to Andres Galarraga, known throughout his career as The Big Cat. He was initially given the name because of his unusual quickness. But when all was said and done, the big cat moniker was most appropriate in the sense that Galarraga, like all cats, had nine lives.
There were so many occasions in which Galarraga’s career could have, and perhaps should have, been derailed for one reason or another. But he always found a way to survive and come back, ultimately going to five All-Star games, winning two Gold Gloves, two Silver Slugger Awards, and one batting title.
Even as a minor leaguer, many doubted that Galarraga would ever be a big league player. As a teenager, he played winter ball in his native Venezuela but was used primarily as a utility player. At the time, scouts believed he was too heavy to be taken seriously as a professional. It was only at the insistence of his manager at the time, Felipe Alou, that the Montreal Expos took a chance on him.
“His swing was beautiful. His reactions and instincts were incredible, and his speed for his size was phenomenal.”
Following more than half a decade in the minors, Galarraga had developed from an overweight teenager into an accomplished minor league player. After making his big league debut in late 1985, Galarraga was in line to be Rookie of the Year in 1986 before suffering a knee injury that required surgery. It would be the first of several injuries that turned out to be nothing more than minor setbacks on his journey.
The following year, Galarraga continued to fulfill his promise. In 1988, he was both an All-Star for the first time and a Silver Slugger winner. Galarraga would soon gain recognition for his defense as well. Despite his size, he had incredible quickness and agility at first base, giving him great range and earning him the nickname of Big Cat. Galarraga could pick balls out of the dirt with the best of them and could execute the 3-6-3 double play with perfection.
“The best-fielding right-handed first baseman I’ve seen since Gil Hodges.”
However, in the early 90s, Galarraga’s offensive numbers began to suffer. The Expos grew impatient and traded him to St. Louis, only to have his only season with the Cardinals plagued by a broken wrist that further hindered him at the plate. For many players, that would have been the end, but not for the Big Cat.
Galarraga left St. Louis and signed with the expansion Colorado Rockies in 1993, a move that breathed new life into his career. Rockies manager Don Baylor helped to change Galarraga’s batting stance, a move that became the catalyst for Galarraga winning the batting title in 1993.
He flirted with .400 for much of the season and ultimately finished with a .370 average, the highest for a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio in 1939. Aside from being the first player from Venezuela to win a batting title, Galarraga also won Comeback Player of the Year in 1993.
His five years in Colorado were good to him. He went to two All-Star games, won another Silver Slugger, and became known for hitting one of the longest home runs in baseball history off Kevin Brown. At the time, it was hit an estimated 573 feet, although it has since been calculated at a more modest distance. Nevertheless, the home run is still talked about to this day.
“When he hit the grand slam off Kevin Brown in Florida. That was the first time I ever got chills when someone hit a home run. I couldn’t believe someone could hit a ball that far.”
Despite five years in Colorado, the Rockies let him go after the 1997 season to make room for Todd Helton. But the Big Cat landed on his feet in Atlanta, where he not only had to come back from the third arthroscopic knee surgery of his career but prove that his power and RBI numbers were not a byproduct of the thin Colorado air. Galarraga did just that, hitting 44 home runs for the Braves in 1998, becoming the first player to hit 40 home runs in consecutive years with two different teams.
Unfortunately, his great challenge was yet to come. Galarraga was sidelined during spring training in 1999 with back pain that turned out to be a tumor in his vertebra. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and sat out the entire season while undergoing chemotherapy.
But the Big Cat proved to have plenty of his nine lives left. He returned in 2000 and hit .302 with 28 home runs and 100 RBIs. He made his fifth and final All-Star team that year, as well as his second Comeback Player of the Year award.
Turning 40 midway through the 2001 season brought a new set of challenges for the aging Galarraga. After surviving cancer, most would have thought about calling it a career, but not the Big Cat. Despite bouncing around among a few different teams, Galarraga remained a productive player and reliable first basemen.
It took a relapse of his cancer to finally put the Big Cat down, but not without a fight. When his cancer returned in 2004, Galarraga underwent more chemo, beat the disease again, and returned to baseball, earning a September call-up with the Angels. It wasn’t until the following spring training that Galarraga conceded that he couldn’t play and called it a career, proving that even nine lives don’t last forever.
“He does everything well. He can hit for average, hit for power, field and run. He has a great attitude and great intensity. He’s a solid citizen, a great family man, a great team man. Anything good there is to say about a player can be said about him.”
Unfortunately, Galarraga used up his nine lives during his playing days and didn’t have any left when it came time to put him on the Hall of Fame ballot. In his first year, Galarraga earned just 4.1% of the vote, taking him off the ballot.
No one will argue that Galarraga is an obvious Hall of Famer. But he was one of the top RBI men of the 90s, a vastly underrated defensive player, and a player who overcame multiple injuries and two battles with cancer.
Odds are, the Big Cat was never going to end up in Cooperstown, but he deserved a lot more consideration than what he got and should be remembered for more than just a great nickname.