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."
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."