ATLANTA -- When baseball's All-Stars convened a year ago, all Andres Galarraga could do was watch.
The Atlanta Braves slugger was sidelined at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., recuperating from chemotherapy treatments for the cancer discovered in his back before the season.
Now, a year later, Galarraga finds himself at the center of attention for tonight's 71st All-Star Game at Turner Field. The "Big Cat" was named the starting first baseman Monday in place of the injured Mark McGwire. Not only is he a cancer survivor, but he's also a major reason Atlanta has the best record in the National League this year.
Throw in the fact that Galarraga will be starting in front of his hometown fans tonight and you have a script that Hollywood would envy.
While Galarraga's National League mates were losing to Pedro Martinez and the American League stars last season, he had just undergone another treatment for the non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
"Any time they put that chemical in my body, it's difficult," Galarraga said Monday, mindful of the memory. "You have nausea; you want to be alone."
However, Galarraga was able to overcome the cancer and join his teammates for inspiration before the end of the season. Most National League pitchers probably wish he'd stayed away; through Sunday's game, Galarraga was hitting .294 with 20 home runs and 62 RBI.
"To me, he was our MVP the first half," National League and Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "One of his goals was to play in the All-Star Game this year, and win a World Series. He's halfway there."
American League All-Star manager Joe Torre, also a cancer survivor, said Galarraga's story was the best story in sports in recent memory.
"I mean, I come back and I sit on my rear end," said Torre, who managed Galarraga when they were in St. Louis. "But to have him come back and do what he's done physically, it's taken a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work."
A five-time All-Star, Galarraga knows he's a role model for others struggling to overcome the disease.
"It's inspiring to me to help people stay focused, be strong in a lot of ways," he said. "I know I'm helping a lot of people. Probably God sent me to help. It happened to me for a reason."
Tonight's game should be very emotional for Galarraga. His wife, children and brother are in town to watch him. His mother is scheduled to visit him next week.
During an off-season performance in Venezuela, Galarraga received an ovation from the fans and he fought to hold off tears. His first game in Atlanta this spring was similar.
"I'll probably be crying," he said.
Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 .0]email@example.com
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