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            It was just perfect. Alex Rodriguez emerging from the Texas Rangers’ clubhouse after Friday night’s 13-1 win over Oakland with Andres Galarraga. Two handsome, gifted Latino baseball players. Obviously friends.

            Rodriguez, the owner of the richest contract in sports, could not possibly pick a better pal than Galarraga. Not that anybody is accusing A-Rod of getting the Big Head, but his new contract exacts certain pressures and responsibilities. He has demands on his time and a team on his back. Nothing will ever be the same for him, at least not for a long time.

            So it is comforting to see him with El Gato, a man whose picture should be in Webster’s next to the word “perspective.”

            First of all, Galarraga is just one of the nicest guys in sports. He makes time for people. He has an expressive smile and the attitude of a guy who is happy to be playing ball and enjoying the promise of America.

            Oh, baseball. It is such a terrific game. It is all that it ever was and more. Like the country it originated in, nothing can ruin it. Not the money, not the politics of the sport, not bad uniforms, Astroturf, or old-timers’ who say players are not as good as in “my day.”

            Baseball brings an Andres Galarraga to America. If it was not for baseball, Andres would still be in Caracas and we would not have the gift of his presence. Neither would Rodriguez.

            Galarraga had been playing in the Majors since 1985. He had good years and not-so-good years in Montreal. In 1992 the Cardinals’ acquired him, he hit .243 and found himself demoted to Louisville. Signed as a free agent by the expansion Colorado Rockies, he lit up Coors Field at a .370 pace in 1993, and ever since has been a marquee player. After a 44-121-.305 performance in 1998, he was diagnosed to have lymphoma in the lumbar spine in February, 1999. The Big C. He missed the whole season, and instead of ripping baseballs out of the yard, underwent radiation and chemotherapy.

            He returned to Atlanta in 2000, hitting an even .300 with 100 runs batted in, and signed with Texas in December.

            “I relax and enjoy the game more,” he says of his attitude after battling, and defeating, cancer. “If I go 0-for-4, I don’t let it bother me like before. I work hard, but I don’t put more pressure on myself. I just keep going because I know I’ll play tomorrow.”

            Told that he reminds people of Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez, <I>El Gato</I> smiles one of the most beautiful smiles this side of Matt Damon.

            “I’m glad people think that,” he says. “Tony Perez is a role model for me. I’m just enjoying the game more than ever. When the doctor told me I can play baseball again, I just said `thank God.’”

            Andres is such a gentleman that hearing him talk about this can make a grown man cry. Speaking of role models, he may be the perfect example for Rodriguez. Hanging around with Galarraga helps him keep perspective.

            “Pressure’s relative,’ says Rodriguez of his contract. “The pressure is something people feel elsewhere. For me, I just play. The talk of the contract is over among my teammates. They’re all happy for me, and they know that my getting this kind of money increases what they’ll get.”

            Coming into the Oakland series, Rodriguez was struggling at the plate, and his team was 4-6. On Friday evening, he broke out with a home run, two RBIs, two runs scored on a 1-for-2 night, and made a nice backhanded defensive play before being pulled for the great Bo Porter in the seventh. Texas won big, 13-1.

            On Saturday he homered again, and his team got to the .500 mark with a 9-8 victory at The Net.

            “The cold weather didn’t bother me,” he said of the Bay Area in April, “but I love the heat. I’m from Miami, so playing in Texas won’t bother me at all. My impressions of Texas are good so far. I think we have the potential to make things happen, and our pitching was good tonight” (Friday).

            No doubt having an experienced pal who has faced much tougher circumstances than the high expectations of a big contract – that pal being Galarraga – is the kind of thing that will keep Rodriguez grounded in this important seventh year of his brilliant career.