Andres Galarraga: Remembering the iconic Venezuelan slugger

Andres Galarraga, the Venezuelan power-hitter, is a hero to all baseball-loving Latinos. Let’s remember his great life and legacy.

Welcome to Los Nuestros, a new column in which we look at the careers of some of the greatest Latino ballplayers in MLB, and our experiences as fans. For our first installment, we delve into the trajectory of Andres Galarraga, el Gran Gato de Caracas, Venezuela, one of the most important sluggers of the ’90s, and one of the reasons so many Latin Americans and US-born fans of Latinx descent became ardent supporters of the newly-formed Colorado Rockies. 

Andrés José Padovani Galarraga was born June 18, 1961, in the Venezuelan Capital. He made his pro baseball debut at home with the Leones del Caracas. From an early age, he was an agile, versatile player, being able to play good defense in any section of the infield, and even as a catcher, which became his main position.

Despite his large build (at 6’3 and over 230 pounds), he was an extraordinarily athletic, quick player, which is why he got his famous nickname (Spanish for “The Big Cat”). He was a top-notch defensive player but he became more notable for his tremendous power with the bat.

He made his debut in the second half of the 1985 season with the Montreal Expos, and by ’88, he was already setting himself as one of the league’s greatest players. That year, he had his first All-Star game appearance, got a Silver Slugger award, and finished the season as the leader in total base hits (184), doubles (42), and put out an impressive batting line (.302/.352/.540). In the next two years, he kept a solid offensive production but also won the Gold Glove Award for his outstanding work at first base.

But the best years in the big cat’s career came when he moved to Colorado. Under the guidance of Don Baylor, Galarraga changed his batting stance and even his offensive philosophy, and that ushered in one of the most inspiring offensive runs of the decade. During the Rockies’ maiden season, Galarraga batted a staggering .370 and took the batting title. Even more amazingly, he collected a mind-blowing 1.005 OPS, a career highlight.

The ’90s were an incredible time for baseball, especially for Latino fans. Many countries opened cable services for the first time, so it was new and exciting for millions of us to be able to watch games basically all week, and the prominence of a Golden generation of Latin American stars coincided with this and created a unique cultural moment. Andres Galarraga quickly became one of our heroes, and together with another notorious Latin slugger, Mexican third baseman Vinny Castilla, turned a lot of us into Rockies fans.

There were enough reasons to root for the young Denver team; Galarraga and Castilla were part of a historic line-up that also included outfielder Dante Bichette and recent Hall Of Famer Larry Walker. On top of that, such an intimidating batters row played its home games at Coors Field, a stadium that would induce fear in the hearts and minds of pitchers, from California to Quebec. When they first reached the postseason in 1995, a surprise for such a recently-created organization, we followed the games religiously, and even when they fell 3-1 to the Atlanta Braves, a fervent Rockies fandom was already solidified.

El Gato’s best individual showings came in ’96 in ’97, when he led the NL in home runs and RBI (47, 150) in the former, and RBI (140) in the latter. He then moved to the Braves, earning yet another All-Star appearance and a 5.0 WAR. However, in 1999, he faced his biggest challenge, as he was diagnosed with cancer before the start of the season, after a routine check-up following a bout of intense back pains.

But Galarraga, ever the resilient, tireless competitor, underwent heavy chemotherapy, beat the disease, and managed to come back to baseball. When the 2000 season rolled in, he returned to Turner Field and received a well-deserved standing ovation. That game was a big TV event among fans in Latin America. Entire families tuned in to watch our Big Cat back in business. He wrapped up that season with a respectable .302/.369/.526, which is astonishing for the then-39-year old batter.

Galarraga retired in 2004 with the Angels, after struggling with injuries and the unforgiving passage of time. But he will always be remembered as one of the biggest offensive powerhouses of the decade, but most crucially, as a baseball icon for all Latinos. He was a key part in a once-in-a-lifetime moment in Sports history, and an inescapable referent for all aspiring big leaguers coming from the Hispanic nations. If today’s kids, when they hear Venezuela they think Jose Altuve, us ’90s kids will always think Andres Galarraga.

Next: As a child of the Team of the ’90s, I was born to be a Braves fan for life

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