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Galarraga’s comeback is complete

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ATLANTA — The Big C wasn't going to get the best of the Big Cat.

Andres Galarraga's remarkable road from cancer victim to cancer survivor comes full circle Tuesday night, when he starts in the All-Star game before an adoring hometown crowd that surely will bring tears to his eyes when he's introduced.

"That's the greatest story we've had in sports," said New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, who beat cancer himself.

Seventeen months ago, doctors discovered a tumor in Galarraga's lower back. A year ago, he watched the All-Star game from home while chemotherapy drugs flowed through his bloated body. Now, he's an All-Star again.

"The first one (in 1988) was a dream come true for me," the 39-year-old Galarraga said. "This one is more special."

In this year of the injury — at least eight players skipped the All-Star game because of various ailments — Galarraga's ordeal makes those guys with broken fingers and sore knees seem rather wimpy.

Even Pittsburgh's Jason Kendall, who suffered a grotesque ankle injury last season, knew his own comeback was overshadowed by Galarraga's.

"It should be," said Kendall, who will start at catcher for the NL. "I dislocated my ankle. He was dealing with his life. There's no comparison."

While Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry and Mike Lowell have also beaten cancer in recent years, Galarraga's story is more remarkable in several respects. For one, he missed an entire season at an age when most players are contemplating retirement. Also, the disease attacked a part of his body that is critical to swinging a bat.

The Braves weren't exactly confident he could recapture his former swing. They insisted that Wally Joyner be included in a trade with San Diego, providing insurance at first base. They told Galarraga to go easy at spring training, figuring he would need a month or two to build up the strength in his back and regain his timing.

Galarraga wouldn't hear of it.

"He thinks the angels are looking out for him," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, who will lead the NL team. "We really didn't know what to expect in spring training. I know we weren't thinking the way he was thinking when he showed up. We thought it would be a slow process and if he was able to start the season, that would be good."

Galarraga's teammates didn't know what to expect, either.

"I knew he would still be strong," said outfielder Andruw Jones, a fellow All-Star. "But to see him come in and swing the bat like he was swinging right away, that was crazy. I was getting chills."

A couple of weeks into spring training, it was clear that Galarraga had more in mind than just making it back. By opening day, he looked like the same hitter who averaged 44 homers and 137 RBIs in the three seasons before he got cancer.

Despite slumping a bit the last two weeks, he reached the All-Star break hitting .294 with 20 homers and 62 RBIs for the first-place Braves. Galarraga was named to the starting lineup when Mark McGwire backed out because of an injured knee.

"Andres was our MVP the first half," Cox said. "His goal was to play in the All-Star game and win a World Series. He's halfway there."

Torre said Galarraga's comeback is matched only by cyclist Lance Armstrong's recovery from the life-threatening disease. Amazingly, these two remarkable athletes are still brothers in arms — Armstrong put himself in position Monday to win a second straight Tour de France, a day before Galarraga played in his fifth All-Star game.

"There's no question when you hear that 'C' word, the only thing you associate with it is death," said Torre, who has recovered from prostate cancer.

While Galarraga seems perpetually upbeat, usually flashing a brilliant smile, there were a few grim moments during his treatment. The chemo caused nausea and a weight gain of some 40 pounds, making it difficult for him to even to look at his once-sculpted body in the mirror.

For the most part, though, Galarraga never lost faith.

"I know I've helped a lot of people because they tell me or write to me," he said. "God probably sent me down here to help people."

On Tuesday night, when he's announced as an All-Star before his hometown fans, expect a few tears to flow down his cheeks.

"There's no words to explain," Galarraga said, "how good I feel."