LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. --In a back field at the Braves' training site in the world of Disney, Andres Galarraga began to write a happy ending to his tearful tale. All baseball smiled when Galarraga swung a bat for the first time in 16 months last week. The legendarily upbeat Galarraga had spent the past year battling cancer; yet it was like he'd never been away. His patented, full-face grin was constant, his torso robust, his swing as quick as ever.
How great is Galarraga? He made everyone in Braves camp forget John Rocker for a full day. Now that's power.
On the remote field a few miles from Mickey and the rest, Galarraga was magic. He did what he does best, which is to put a smile on everyone's face. Then he picked up his rather large stick. Batting against a coach he knew only as ''Chino'' with what he described as a half-to-three-quarters swing, Galarraga, looking fit and ready for April, cleared the fences eight times without ever trying too hard.
The script is perfect for Disney. Galarraga was starting his comeback on Feb. 18, a date he could never forget. It was on that day last year when doctors told Galarraga he had cancer in a vertebra in his back. And then Galarraga had to hear it a second time, when he told his wife, Eneyda, and three young daughters words no 37-year-old should have to say: I have cancer.
The smile and swing were working nicely in tandem on this fittingly sunny day in central Florida. This was great for the Braves, even better for baseball, which could use a lift with Rocker on almost everyone's minds. Smiling as usual while sitting in the dugout, Galarraga listed his two goals: to win and to beat the cancer. He views himself as a role model for cancer fighters. ''I'm happy to help a lot of people,'' he says.
Even the crustiest of baseball veterans felt something come over them. ''He's probably going to make everyone cry before it's all over,'' says Braves Manager Bobby Cox. ''You're pulling for him so hard, it gets into your heart.''
After crushing baseball after baseball, Galarraga turned to observers, smiled his famous smile and said, ''Not bad, huh?'' He was as surprised as they were. After watching Galarraga on this day, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he will be the Braves' first baseman on opening day. It has to be that way.
Heyman is a national baseball columnist for Newsday.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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