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Galarraga ready for the next chapter

CHICAGO -- The calls of admiration began out by the bullpen during his pregame warm-ups Tuesday night and mushroomed when Armando Galarraga walked to the mound for the first time in five days. The Chicago White Sox fans' ovation for the Detroit Tigers' starting pitcher grew louder, and it immediately became clear: Galarraga's near-perfect game last week was more than a blip on the news cycle.

"I heard them a little," Galarraga said of the White Sox fans, "but I was trying to focus."

In the days since the infamous missed call by umpire Jim Joyce cost Galarraga a perfect game and sent the 28-year-old Venezuelan pitcher from relative unknown to national stardom -- he was even featured on the "Today" show -- Galarraga has been lauded for the grace he showed that night. Fans, players and coaches have let Galarraga know how much they appreciated his professionalism and class in handling Joyce's mistake. And for Galarraga, it was a week filled with a range of emotions that challenged him to maintain focus and prepare for his next start.

That came Tuesday, and although the baseball world's attention was focused elsewhere on Nationals rookie starter Stephen Strasburg, Galarraga had a solid outing. His final line showed five innings, seven hits and two runs allowed in the Tigers' 7-2 win against the White Sox -- a step forward for him, one he very much needed.

"I'm glad it's over," he said, "that [perfect game] story is over now. It's time to start a new story."

The story Galarraga wants written about him now doesn't end with an almost-perfect game taken away by an umpire. He wants to be known as a good major league pitcher. For that to happen, he knows he needs to prove it. And everyone in the Tigers' clubhouse is aware of the challenge Galarraga faces.

"Maybe if he doesn't have the career he should have, maybe people are going to say it was one of those things that everything just went his way that day," said teammate Gerald Laird. "If you can't come out and establish a presence in the major leagues, later in life they'll just bring it up that he was just an average pitcher in the big leagues who just had his day. I hope he'll [instead] be looked at as a really good major league pitcher."

So how does a player who started the season in the minor leagues and who has struggled to find consistent success during his career get to the brink of a perfect game? And how has he handled the fallout with such aplomb? It turns out a series of conversations the Tigers had with Galarraga leading into last week's game played a pivotal role. So did the way he was reared.

The early years

Galarraga had never given people much reason to pay attention to him, spending the past 12 years pitching in relative anonymity. Tigers manager Jim Leyland equated Galarraga's recent burst of fame to an unknown rock band scoring a major hit, or an obscure actor getting an Oscar nomination.

But back in 1998, Galarraga first flew on Fred Ferreira's radar when the then-Montreal Expos international scouting director held a workout for 25 players on a field outside of Caracas, Venezuela.

Ferreira, a veteran scout who has signed hundreds of players -- including Vladimir Guerrero and Bernie Williams -- saw the 16-year-old pitcher's broad shoulders and thought they'd fill out. He clocked his fastball at around 87 mph. Then he shook Galarraga's hand.

"I can judge [players] by the way they approach and give you a handshake," Ferreira says. "His was very hard -- a winner's handshake. He wasn't scared, and very confident of himself."

Ferreira signed Galarraga for $3,000 on Oct. 13, 1998. But there was a catch: His mother, Maritza, insisted that he finish high school before playing baseball. Armando's parents were from the country, but moved to Caracas when Armando was 6 years old. They both valued education: Maritza was a chemistry teacher for a local high school, and his father, Pepe, was a marine biologist.

Most importantly, perhaps, they taught him the importance of being a good person. Armando's calm nature has been passed down by both of his parents. And it was his father who would make sure to remind Armando the value of character. Pepe's favorite soccer player was Brazilian legend Pelé. Pepe would tell his son in Spanish, "Que es el mejor persona dentro del juego como fue del juego."

Translation: Pelé is just as good a person outside of the game as inside it.

The bottom line

It had reached a point where Leyland realized that if Galarraga was ever going to put it together, someone had to say something to him. Other than a strong rookie season in 2008, when he won 13 games with Detroit after being traded that winter by Texas, Galarraga's career had consisted mostly of the minor leagues with three other organizations, Tommy John surgery and uncertainty.

When the Rangers designated him for assignment and he was unsure where his next job would be, Galarraga said he told himself that he would never quit. If all else failed, he'd "go to Japan," he said with a laugh. "He loves sushi," Christin, Galarraga's wife, deadpanned. The point being, Galarraga knew he could be a major league pitcher, and he wasn't going to give up.

But last year, he was injured with forearm inflammation, and said he struggled mentally, feeling lost by the end of the season. The Tigers felt that Galarraga wasn't attacking hitters enough; he needed to be more aggressive and start pitching inside. They'd told him this, but they hadn't spelled out that his future was at risk. On May 23 this season -- the day after Galarraga's second start since being recalled from the minors -- Leyland decided to call him into his office.

In Galarraga's mind, he was being sent back to Triple-A. He told himself he was not going to give up even if he was being sent back down, before Leyland laid it on the line.

"You have to show us you can do this," Leyland told him. "We believe in you."

Leyland told Galarraga that he had the Tigers' support, but he had to be aggressive, and as Leyland put it, "you're always totally honest, but there are times when you're not brutally honest. We were kind of brutally honest."

Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp later spoke to Galarraga in the dugout, reminding him to be aggressive. To survive in the majors, he had to pitch to both sides of the plate and not fear pitching inside. If he didn't do that, he wouldn't make it.

Five days later, on May 28, Galarraga pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen against the Oakland A's. He said he felt comfortable and consistent with his delivery, and felt confident and aggressive with his pitches. When Tigers catcher Alex Avila was asked if he could tell the difference after Galarraga had his meetings, Avila said "totally," and noted how he immediately saw the change in his pitcher's presence on the mound.

Galarraga also pitched that day knowing full well that a decision was looming about whether the team would keep him or Dontrelle Willis in the rotation. The next night, Galarraga was eating dinner in the clubhouse when general manager Dave Dombrowski approached his table, letting him know they were letting Willis go.

"I want you to know we believe in you," Dombrowski told him. "Here's your opportunity."

'How gracious he is'

Christin Galarraga met Armando in 2004, when Christin was working as the strength and conditioning coach for the Savannah Sand Gnats, the Expos' Class A team. Christin wasn't interested in dating any players because she didn't want to compromise her job, and she thought he was just another typical ballplayer.

That changed as she got to know Armando better. She saw the polite, kind and gentle side of him, as well as his quiet humor. She noticed he could change the atmosphere in a room once he entered it. When Armando walked off the field and his parents were in the stands, she saw he always made sure to tip his cap and let them know he was thinking of them.

When she visited Venezuela for the first time, Armando's parents went out of their way to make her feel comfortable, getting her foods that she would like and making sure she was taken care of. She felt safe with him, and she knew he was raised by good, caring people.

On June 2, Christin was watching by herself in the stands when her husband lost his chance at history. She saw how he reacted immediately after the blown call, and what he said in all the interviews. None of it surprised her.

"I've always known how gracious he is," Christin said. "He's been like that as long as I've known him. It's one of the reasons I fell in love with him."

Later that night, hours after the game, Armando and Christin took their English bulldog puppy, Panzona, for a walk and ended up at a Sonic restaurant.

Just a few hours earlier, Galarraga had consoled a crying Joyce in the umpires' room as Joyce profusely apologized for erroneously calling Indians shortstop Jason Donald safe at first base, taking away the 27th out and Galarraga's place in the record book.

Over a bacon cheeseburger, Armando recalled telling Christin that he felt sad -- sad for Joyce, sad for himself that he didn't live out his dream of pitching a perfect game, sad about the entire situation. Under the glare of fast-food fluorescent lights, Armando tried to talk it out.

"I saw the replay, he was out -- totally out," he told her. While lamenting what could have been, Armando also said how happy he was with his performance, believing it all happened for a reason.

When Armando and Christin walked back home to their condo, they got a small sample of how big the story would soon be. Flowers and notes greeted them at their doorstep and in their mailbox. They said they were surprised people knew where they lived, and humbled by the spontaneous support. One note, in particular, stood out: "You're a classy man."

Christin took the note inside and put it on their fridge, where it still hangs.

How he handled it

After Joyce signalled "safe," Galarraga's muted reaction revealed his inner calmness, and his sense of humor, too. Instead of getting angry and going after Joyce, Galarraga simply cocked his head back and shot Joyce a wry smile.

Forty-eight hours after the perfect game -- that's what Galarraga still calls it -- an enduring image from that night played out in the Kansas City Royals visitors clubhouse as Taiwan native Fu-Te Ni mimicked the play at first base -- and the wry smile -- perfectly, as teammates howled with laughter.

"Oh, now you speak English, huh?" Galarraga said, hugging Ni and asking him to repeat the imitation.

Someone in the room said the imitation crosses all language barriers.

"You don't need any words!" Galarraga added, laughing louder than anyone else in the room at his strange misfortune.

In another corner of the clubhouse, third baseman Brandon Inge was still in awe of what he witnessed.

"To me, it's the best story ever because of the sportsmanship that was shown and because of the way it was handled," he said.

Inge was taught how to play sports the right way as a kid: Shake hands with opponents after the game, play hard, respect the game and show good sportsmanship. And he echoed just about everyone else when saying that's what both Joyce and Galarraga did.

"It could have been a really, really bad situation and it turned into something that made me proud," Inge said, looking down at his arms and adding that it still gave him chills.

Inge is not alone. Galarraga was eating dinner in Kansas City over the weekend with Magglio Ordonez when fans approached their table and turned to Galarraga, asking him to shake their hand or give them a high-five. They were Royals fans, simply wanting to tell Galarraga how classy he was. Ordonez laughed, and happily watched as Galarraga got the spotlight. It wasn't just the fans, either. The Royals players sent over a box of balls and asked Galarraga to sign them, sending word that they appreciated his courage and class.

"I've never been asked to do that," Galarraga said. "It's usually the superstars."

Determined to prove himself

The meetings with Leyland and Knapp served an important part of how Galarraga arrived at the game last week and why it happened to him. While he said he didn't think the meetings gave him any extra motivation, he acknowledged that the support they showed and Dombrowski's later gesture increased his confidence.

But even before those conversations, Galarraga made it clear to Dombrowski, Leyland and Knapp that he felt he belonged. During a meeting in spring training when they told him he was being sent to the minors, Galarraga said he felt he lost his job and wanted them to know he intended to get it back. He said he told them, "I am a major league pitcher."

He showed that last Wednesday in his near-perfect game when, flush with confidence in his first start since grabbing the rotation spot from Willis, Galarraga threw his fastball 3-4 mph faster, topping out at 94. He pitched consistently ahead in the count, working both sides of the plate, came one out away from history and most importantly, showed what they all asked of him: no fear.

Can he maintain that? What will we make of Armando Galarraga when his career is over?

"I think he wants to be remembered as a pitcher that was good, and not as a guy who went out there and had one really great game," Laird said. "I think he wants to be known as a great pitcher, not as a pitcher that had a great game."

It was a small step Tuesday night in Chicago. His story is not written yet, and he knows it.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.