- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

PHILADELPHIA The Atlanta Braves have lived with baseball's horror story of 2000 the John Rocker controversy. Sometimes it seems as if the poison created by the furor has consumed the clubhouse.

But all the players have to do for an antidote is look across the locker room at the husky, graying man with the perennial smile on his face a man who sees hope instead of hatred, the polar opposite of their bitter young reliever.

Andres Galarraga is baseball's feel-good story of the season. The Venezuelan first baseman has come back from cancer to resume his role as one of the top sluggers in the game.

"Rocker may be a big story to all of the media, but he is not the story of this team," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "The story of this team is Andres Galarraga."

The Braves are doing all they can to avoid being engulfed by the Rocker controversy, and embracing the comeback of their courageous first baseman can only help.

"What he has done is amazing," shortstop Walt Weiss said. "But he has always been a positive guy, and if anyone could come back to do this, he could."

Cox sets the professional tone in the Braves' clubhouse by which most of the team operates. But he said Galarraga (.303, 19 home runs, 60 RBI) sets the tone for the attitude of the club.

"He is the heart of this team," Cox said. "He carried us the first part of this season. He was awesome."

Amazing, awesome and inspiring. Galarraga, 39, who first came up with the Montreal Expos in 1985, signed as a free agent with Atlanta in November 1997 after establishing himself as one of the game's top sluggers in five seasons with the Colorado Rockies.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound first baseman, who had 332 career home runs and 1,172 RBI going into this year, had not played since the Braves lost to the San Diego Padres in six games in the 1998 National League Championship Series. Shortly after the season ended, Galarraga went to the doctor to check out lower back pain that bothered him toward the end of the year. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and he endured six rounds of chemotherapy and one radiation treatment.

It wasn't as if Galarraga was a lifelong Brave. After all, he had been with the team just one year, albeit a very good one (.305 average, 44 home runs, 121 RBI in 1998). But his presence had such an impact on his teammates that they embraced him as their leader. And when he was recovering, the team from the general manager to the last man on the roster made a point to make Galarraga feel as if he had spent his entire career with Atlanta.

"Someone called me almost every day," he said. "This is the best clubhouse I have ever been a part of. They made me feel like I belonged here from the first day I got here."

One time during 1999 spring training, the whole team rode buses down to Galarraga's West Palm Beach, Fla., home to surprise him.

"They did all they could to make me feel like part of the team," he said.

That included dressing with the team and staying with them in between treatments at the end of the season and throughout the playoffs.

"That helped me get through it," Galarraga said. "I think it helped me get ready for this season."

He got ready by building his strength back up through a weight-lifting program. He started almost from scratch; he barely was able to lift one-third of the weight he could before the cancer, and the chemotherapy treatment had weakened his back muscles. But in an intensive four-month program, Galarraga not only built his strength back up but toned his body and slimmed down. He may be stronger now than ever.

Galarraga kicked off his remarkable comeback with a storybook performance on Opening Day, blasting a home run to lead Atlanta to win over the Colorado Rockies.

"That was an amazing day because we didn't really know what to expect from Andres this year," Cox said.

They were uncertain enough to trade for first baseman Wally Joyner in the offseason.

"Going into spring training, I was just hoping that he would just look OK," Cox said. "I was surprised when he looked just as strong as the day we got him.

"A lot of it has to do with the size of his heart," Cox said. "He has a big heart."

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