The Minnesota twins had just fallen to the Boston Red Sox for their eighth straight loss, and third baseman Gary Gaetti was searching for a solution as he lingered half-dressed in front of his locker in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metro-dome. "What are you going to do?" he said. "You can't rah-rah somebody into playing baseball. You just keep playing hard and looking forward." Then, as if finding a vision that pleased him, Gaetti smiled. "A good team prayer would work," he said. "But I think we'd need total participation."
This is an article from the Aug. 21, 1989 issue
On the lineup card, and on the surface, these appear to be much the same Minnesota Twins who won the World Series in 1987, the same hang-loose, pitching-thin, lumber-heavy bunch who shocked the American League and then the St. Louis Cardinals less than two years ago. The fans still raise a high-decibel din at the drop of a hankie in the Metrodome; manager Tom Kelly would still rather throw batting practice than pitch a premeditated fit; and Gaetti, first baseman Kent Hrbek and centerfielder Kirby Puckett are still an unequaled triangle of talent. It isn't a team affected by the '87 success, either. In the Twins' locker room the lone reminder of that grand season is a clay pot painted like a baseball and inscribed with the team's league and world titles. It sits on a table, holding a wilted plant in soil strewn with cigarette butts.
So it seems odd that Minnesota, as of Sunday, should find itself in fifth place in the American League West, 12½ games back and struggling to rise above .500. It's odd, too, that the Twins, once dominant in the Dome, are only 31-27 at home this season. And it's odd that after leading the majors in fielding while winning 91 games last season, the club is now fifth in the league in that department. What has changed here?
There are some of the usual suspects. 1) Money: Pitcher Frank Viola's early-season contract dispute divided the club, angered fans and ultimately contributed to his being traded to the Mets on July 31. 2) Moves: The trades of outfielder Tom Brunansky and pitcher Bert Blyleven have yielded no return on the big league roster. 3) Injuries: Leftfielder Dan Gladden has been hampered by a bum left leg, second baseman Wally Backman by a sore left shoulder and Hrbek by a dislocated left shoulder. 4) Time: The volatility in baseball that has overturned so many recent champions has simply caught up with the Twins—who now have only 10 players left from the '87 roster.
Says Kelly, "I think what's hard for ball clubs is when things happen to them that have never happened before. When they happen the next time, you're better prepared, but the first time is tough."
What this club was perhaps least prepared for, and what may be the most fundamental change in the Twins, is the night-and-day personal transformation of Gaetti, a two-time All-Star who has averaged .280 with 31 home runs and 102 RBIs and won three Gold Gloves the past three seasons. Gaetti is a burly, six-foot 200-pounder, with a face that earned him the moniker Rat and brown eyes that crackle with intensity. For most of his nine years with the Twins, he has carried the team's emotional torch. When their pennant hopes flickered in '87, it was Gaetti who stormed up and down the dugout before their last home game, war-whooping, "We're going to get it done today! Today's the day!" Minnesota scored five runs in the first inning and blasted the Royals 8-1. The next day, the Twins clinched the divisional title.
"If ever there was a guy ready to go, it was him," says Kelly. "Swinging the bat, diving for balls and acting like a banshee."
Gaetti, who turns 31 on Saturday, is still swinging (.253, a team-high 18 homers and 67 RBIs, despite being bothered for the past six weeks by an abdominal muscle pull) and still diving (for possibly another Gold Glove), but his banshee days are over. While recovering from an operation on his left knee late last season, Gaetti became a born-again Christian. In a flash, he was delivered from his longtime pastimes of Dionysian excess: drinking (into the wee hours), smoking (about two packs a day) and cussing (with almost every sentence). The energy he once radiated in the dugout now flows instead when he opens his leather-bound Bible and guides a listener through the opening passages of the Gospel according to John.
Normally, players' religious beliefs are not big news. But Gaetti's conversion has been so conspicuous that it has received a lot of attention in the Minnesota papers and on local call-in radio shows. A frequent question is this: Has the born-again Gaetti lost the fire so vital to his success as a ballplayer? Or, to put it another way, can he serve two masters?
Gaetti, sitting in the Twins' dugout before a game, is quick to answer. "According to His word, I was living pretty much full-speed for the Devil," he says. "And I guess I was changed drastically, more so than a lot of other people. But anybody that says I would be docile about losing, I'd challenge him to stand in front of home plate with the ball and try to block me, and see if I have lost my intensity to play. God still uses qualities like intensity to further His plan."
His eyes are brimming now with passion. "I've got to play baseball," he says. "That's my job. We're supposed to work. I can't scream and shout at the other team like I used to. But in ways I lead—I just do it a little different. I'm still trying to deal with that because that's part of my profession. There's times I don't want to be in that position, but I am. I have to lead by example.
"But, to tell you the truth, I wish Jesus would come back now and let us all go to heaven. This world doesn't compare to what heaven is like. The Apostle Paul says, 'No eye can see, no mind can comprehend those things that God has planned for those who love Him.' "
Clubhouse chemistry is a mysterious thing. Is the chemistry itself a catalyst for achievement? Or is good chemistry created by simply pouring enough wins into a beaker? The Twins' collective persona in their championship year of 1987 was about the same as it was in 1986, when they went 71-91. And this year's locker room could hardly be described as a cauldron of tension. Nor can Gaetti be accused of being a wallflower. Today he arrives in the locker room wearing a pair of bizarrely patterned pants that look like pajama bottoms. "Them are sweet, Rat!" Puckett coos. "Very sweet!" Gaetti proceeds to jump up on the table and then pounces to the floor, imitating his best pro wrestling move. "Once we come to the park, we play together," says Puckett. "I think that's enough."
But is it? In addition to Gaetti's metamorphosis, the departure of Blyleven, a veteran and an inveterate prankster, has hurt. "Now you walk in, it's quiet—a couple guys talking here, a couple guys talking there," said Viola a few days before he was traded. "It's more of a cliquish thing than a group thing. Bert kept everybody loose, Gary got everybody fired up. It's a great transformation that Gary has had, and I'm really happy for him, but from the perspective of the other players, it's taking time to adjust to the new Gary."
Almost to a man, the Twins respect Gaetti's right to his new and deeply felt beliefs. For Hrbek, though, the conversion has been hard to accept. Hrbek first met Gaetti 10 years ago in Class A at Elizabethton, Tenn. By the time they reached the majors, Gaetti and Hrbek were fast friends and spent time together joking around the clubhouse, hanging around in bars and hunting during the off-season. Even when they began making millions, the two continued to share a room on the road. Their companionship, and its attendant carousing, formed the social spine of the team.
But now that a Bible is Gaetti's constant companion, Hrbek isn't. Hrbek, in fact, remains his old, profane self—"dropping F-bombs," as he puts it. The two are no longer roommates. Hrbek seems unable to understand the change in his old pal. "He's Gary Gaetti on the field—he still has heart and guts and power," Hrbek says. "But he's somebody I don't know off the field. It's almost like he passed away." Says Gaetti of Hrbek, "I love Kent. We don't do the same things we did before, but that's good, O.K.?"
At the All-Star Game in Anaheim, Gaetti distributed leaflets at his locker that included his picture, his testimony and a plan for personal salvation. When the lineups were introduced on national television, he held up to the camera a batting-gloved palm on which he had written JESUS is LORD. In '82, Hrbek, an All-Star when Gaetti was not, had held up a glove with Gaetti's number 8 written on it. In '88, Gaetti returned the gesture in Cincinnati; the message on Gaetti's palm was HI REX, a tribute to Hrbek's wrestling alter ego, Tyrannosaurus Rex. But this year, Gaetti's message was more universal. "It was a victory for the Lord," Gaetti says. "There might've been somebody sitting at home watching who was trying to get his life straightened out, and he saw JESUS IS LORD and it helped him make a decision." Hrbek had been at a resort in Mille Lacs Lake, Minn., during the All-Star break, and had tuned in to the game. When he saw Gaetti's glove, he flicked the TV off.
To some, Gaetti's passionate conversion was a characteristic change. "He's the same old Gary to me," says catcher Tim Laudner, "because whenever he decides to do something, he doesn't test the water. He jumps right in." While attending Northwest Missouri State, Gaetti experimented with drugs. In 1983, he came across an Eat to Win diet book in the supermarket and became immersed in that, losing 30 pounds in two months. He has experimented with hypnosis and sensory deprivation. In '87, after meeting some Vietnam vets and researching their plight, he became deeply involved in the POW-MIA movement, donating a van to the cause.
But Gaetti says he was never happy, even during his wildly ecstatic reaction to winning the World Series. "It was nice, it was satisfying—but only in a baseball sense, in a human sense of accomplishment," he says. "Because it doesn't mean anything the minute you win. It's fleeting, and you realize it."
In August '88, while lying around his house after arthroscopic surgery on his knee, Gaetti read in a pamphlet about the "rapture," an event eagerly anticipated by many born-again believers, in which they are spirited from the world to meet Jesus. An evangelical scholar had even predicted that the rapture would take place between Sept. 11 and 13. At this news, Gaetti began evaluating his life in terms of the afterlife, heaven and hell and where he was bound. He spoke to some of his Christian teammates, and then one day while driving by himself, he repented his sins to God. "He rewarded me right away," Gaetti recalls. "The Bible started meaning what it was supposed to mean. My spirit was alive. I could see with spiritual eyes what He wanted me to see in His word. I was radically saved."
He rejoined the team in September a different man. He and Hrbek had problems on the team's next trip to Seattle, at the time the rapture was supposed to occur. With typical enthusiasm Gaetti tried to share his reawakening with Hrbek; Hrbek took Gaetti's "line" as self-righteousness. The depth of Gaetti's convictions began to strain other relationships as well. Last January he separated from Debby, his wife of 11 years; recently the elder of his two sons, seven-year-old Joseph, wondered aloud why Dad spent all his time reading "that dumb Bible." Says Gaetti, "I'm going to have to let God lead me in this area. Can you spend too much time with God? I feel like I'm doing what He wants me to do."
Before he goes to the plate, Gaetti often recites Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me." In the field, he sometimes sings hymns out loud. And whenever he can, he reads the Bible. His evangelical Christianity, while distancing him from some players, has drawn him closer to others. Says veteran catcher Brian Harper, who was born again 12 years ago, "At first, Gary was outgoing about his beliefs. But you have to be careful of what you say and when you say it. The best witness is your life, to show you're happy and peaceful. It's not always the right time to talk about religion."
On July 16 against the Red Sox, Gaetti took a throw from Puckett and dived to the third base bag to apply the tag. When the umpire signaled safe, he sprang from the turf and started to charge the ump. But quickly Gaetti stopped himself, reined in his emotions, turned away from confrontation and walked toward the mound. He was asked about the play later, and his first words were, "I did not sin." Said Hrbek, "I asked him if he dropped an F-bomb, and he said he didn't. At least it's to the point where we can kid around about it."
But make no mistake. Gaetti is committed to his conversion, which he is convinced has saved his life. "I've been forgiven a lot," he says. "I love God a lot. I'm devoted to Him totally, consumed. Nothing means anything but serving the Lord. I know He wants me playing baseball, so I can reach people. But the day He makes me make a choice, there's no choice to be made."