Part 15: Freddy! Freddy!

by Timothy Malcolm

He stepped from the on-deck circle and strode to home plate, a 5’10”, 22-year-old kid. Freddy Galvis was playing in his fifth major league game, starting all five, parking himself at second base thanks to his glove. He dug his feet into the batter’s box, his paunchy face pointed toward the pitcher, Josh Johnson, a fire-throwing right-hander still recovering from a season-long shoulder injury. Around him, a Citizens Bank Park crowd filled to capacity stood and began clapping.

 

Galvis searched his peripheral vision. On first, a Phillie. On second, a Phillie. On third, a Phillie. By singling and slipping up the Miami Marlins defense, the Phillies had already scored three runs in this inning, owning a 3-1 lead. Finally, the offense was breathing life, and Galvis, this 22-year-old kid, had the opportunity to break a game open. The runners took tentative leads. Johnson found the sign, brought his glove to his chest, and unleashed a pitch. Ball one.

***

In 1958, Venezuelans Romulo Betancourt, Rafael Caldera and Jovito Villabla signed the Punto Fijo Pact, which sought to restrict the presidential election to three major centrist democratic parties. Betancourt of the Democratic Action party won the election. Kept out of the election were the Communist Party of Venezuela, the Republican Integration party, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Punto Fijo, resting in the state of Falcon, means “fixed point,” as in, the place where all congregate. In 1958 it meant influential leaders congregating to unite under a growing socialist and communist threat. Today it means a growing center, a home for Venezuelan fishermen and investment bankers. Punto Fijo also possesses the world’s largest oil refinery complex, fueling the entire country at 1 million barrels per day. Punto Fijo has risen in the Venezuelan economy, a boon on the shores of a tiny peninsula in the Caribbean Sea and hidden in the shadows of Hugo Chavez, the socialist president of the country.

Freddy Galvis was born in Punto Fijo, Falcon, in 1989, 10 years before Chavez assumed presidency of Venezuela. Like most boys in Venezuela, baseball became hobby, then passion. He played with his older brother and his friends, using corks and sticks to practice hitting, planting himself at shortstop to practice fielding. He tried hitting from both sides of the plate. He took any grounder that came his way, echoing his idol Omar Vizquel, one of Venezuela’s greatest players and, unquestionably, its most revered defensive infielder. By age 14, scouts with the Philadelphia Phillies found Galvis, whose father coached little league. Galvis could hit. Galvis could run. But most impressively, Galvis could field. Really field.

***

The clapping had become a loud, long cheer from the sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park. At once, all the fans began chanting the two syllable name:

“Freddy! Freddy!”

The Phillies opened the season losing a three-game series in Pittsburgh. They arrived home with a whimper, losing the home opener in wasted fashion. The fans booed a botched play involving Galvis. Two days later, here they were, on their feet, and Galvis dug in, waited for the pitch, and heard the fans growing in volume:

“Freddy! Freddy!”

Josh Johnson’s pitch came, and Galvis took a hack, but he fouled it off.

***

The Tampa Bay Rays offered Galvis about $250,000 in 2006. The Phillies had only offered $95,000. Yet the Phillies scouts housed Galvis in their facility. The Phillies made numerous trips to Venezuela, becoming friends with the Galvis family and creating a relationship that resulted in a contract. The Phillies, despite underpaying profusely, brought Galvis to America in 2007.

Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is a long way from Punto Fijo. Galvis flashed his glove for the Crosscutters, making up for a light offensive game despite his switch-hitting habits. And stuck in Central Pennsylvania, home of Little League glories, Galvis began learning English by watching syndicated episodes of “Friends.” He was 17, a baby by baseball standards, a fresh-faced, cherub bub pocketing ground balls for the low-A squad, miles upon miles from the big leagues, and yet, nobody knew just how close.

***

The crowd continued, louder and louder. The Phillies had finally broken through. Juan Pierre singled and stole second, though replays showed he was likely tagged out before he reached the base. Then Placido Polanco singled, and Jimmy Rollins singled, and Hunter Pence singled, and runs walked home because of porous Marlins’ defense. Finally, something to cheer about.

But this was the moment. The fans standing, waiting for the breakthrough. The rookie sought his second hit. His first was an inconsequential double in Pittsburgh. His average hung well below .200. It didn’t matter. This was the moment.

“Freddy! Freddy”

Josh Johnson hadn’t yet found his groove in 2012. He would later limit the New York Mets to one earned run over six innings and change. Returning from shoulder surgery, Johnson still needed time to acclimate. That meant the bub, a rookie, a 22-year-old kid, could strike a major hit off of him with the bases loaded.

Galvis stood in the box. Johnson had his sign. The fans chanted. The pitch came in: Ball two.

***

The same year Galvis started his ascension of the Phillies farm system, Chase Utley was finishing one of his finest seasons. Overshadowed only by Jimmy Rollins, the elephant leading the charge for a hungry young Phillies team, Utley secured his place as baseball’s greatest current second baseman, a surefire Hall of Fame candidate if he kept up his high level of play. The Phillies, meanwhile, reached the postseason for the first time since Galvis was age 3. The beginning of an era nearly unmatched in Philadelphia baseball.

In 2008, Galvis moved one step higher, to Lakewood, New Jersey. There, he hit a little better, and still fielded better than anyone. The whispers began. Could Galvis, this 18-year-old whiz, one day supplant Jimmy Rollins at shortstop? Meanwhile Rollins was striking leadoff home runs in playoff games, guiding his Phillies to their first championship since 1980. Galvis was still miles upon miles from the big leagues.

***

With the count two balls and one strike, the fans sensed a big hit. Galvis sensed a big hit. This was a hitter’s count. Maybe it could start “hittin’ season,” Charlie Manuel’s annual acknowledgment that the offense had arrived.

It wouldn’t. The Phillies would scuffle even moreover the next week, wasting heroic pitching efforts with weak at bats. It wouldn’t be Galvis’ fault. He wasn’t there for his bat. Still, Galvis would hit his first career home run two nights later against the New York Mets. And Galvis would find himself leading the team in runs batted in for a short spell.

But Galvis was there for his glove, which sparkled. Effortless dives into the outfield grass, quick wrists and laser throws. A madman on the dirt. A falcon from Falcon.

Josh Johnson had his sign. Galvis looked in tight. Two and one. Hitter’s count. Hittin’ season. Johnson unfurled the pitch. Galvis took a healthy cut. Foul.

Two and two.

***

Galvis kept moving higher in the farm system. In 2009 it was Clearwater, then Reading. His hitting improved slightly in Clearwater, remaining nearly steady in Reading. The fielding continued to dominate headlines.

“At SS, he’s as smooth as glass,” wrote commenter Bellman on Aug. 25, 2009, at PhuturePhillies.com, which tracks Phillies prospects. “Galvis was confident and taking charge out there.”

Galvis finished 2009 in Reading, returning in 2010 for the entire season. He returned again in 2011, amassing 985 at bats in all in Reading, while hitting .248. That was good enough. In August 2011, Galvis moved up to AAA Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies in 2011 used Chase Utley, Wilson Valdez, Michael Martinez and Pete Orr at second base. Valdez, Martinez and Jimmy Rollins each played shortstop.

***

Johnson set another pitch for Galvis. The bases still loaded, still two outs, still three across in the fourth inning. Johnson’s pitch was close, too close to take, and Galvis swung to get a piece. He got just enough. Foul pop, out of play.

***

In Reading, Galvis hit seeing-eye singles and little choppers. Soon those lucky grounders became line drives, a few home runs, too. By 2011 Galvis had become a pro at meeting the ball, striking easy singles and doubles, growing as an offensive player.

In 2011 with Reading, Galvis hit .273 with 22 doubles, four triples and eight home runs. When minor league play ended, the Phillies awarded Galvis with the organization’s Paul Owens Award for offense, the highest honor bestowed upon a minor leaguer. The Phillies sensed it: Galvis was no longer miles upon miles from the big leagues. He was one bad injury away.

***

“Freddy! Freddy!”

The team broadcasting the Phillies game for ESPN acknowledged the major chant circulating Citizens Bank Park. It was the Phillies’ first national broadcast of the season, and here was a 22-year-old kid digging in for the biggest at bat of his life. One wondered if he barely worried.

Valdez encountered ribbing in Venezuela. He struck corks with sticks. Anything to hit the ball, anything to play baseball.

Centrism no longer runs Venezuela. Hugo Chavez, leader of the United Socialist Party, has served as president since 1999. A revolutionary, he is both beloved and loathed. He is influential and controversial. Galvis grew up in this environment, one of sketchy human rights and socialist ethos. Everyone for themselves. Make your way out if you can. Opportunity knocks, but good luck finding it.

Galvis got out. He spent his teenage years in shabby hotels throughout the Midwest and East Coast. He never attended college, yet received a full college education in baseball from the Philadelphia Phillies. He learned English thanks to a long stay in America, aided by Joey, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe. Williamsport, Lakewood, Clearwater, Reading, Lehigh Valley. There are farther places from Punto Fijo, but there aren’t further places from Punto Fijo.

Philadelphia, however, couldn’t be closer. A fixed point. Forty-thousand men and women dressed in red and white, standing and clapping and shouting at this 22-year-old kid from the streets of Venezuela, sizing his bat during the at bat of his life.

“Freddy! Freddy!”

Josh Johnson set himself. The three runners led off their bases. The pitch came in. Galvis saw it sure – the biggest cork he’d ever see in his life. He swung the stick free and easy, like he did late in Reading, and struck the cork perfectly.

The ball sailed into right field, bouncing on the grass before meeting the glove of Giancarlo Stanton. Two runs came home. Galvis met second base with a wide smile. The fans hadn’t cheered louder in what seemed like years. This wasn’t the robotic ease of a Roy Halladay no-hitter. This wasn’t an obvious division championship celebration. This was a 22-year-old kid striking the biggest hit of his life, one that can bring white hot hope to a city beginning to search for a reason. It was the unlikely double. The unbelievable had happened.

Of course, Freddy was probably the biggest believer in the house.

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