TAMPA, Fla. -- There was a time when, after a tough loss, you didn't want to be within a hundred miles of Gary Gaetti. No sir. One of my least favorite duties while covering the Minnesota Twins was approaching Gaetti for a comment after a loss.
"What do YOU want?" he'd snap as I approached. "YOU saw the game. Write about it! I got nothin' to say!"
Gaetti, sitting in front of his locker with a half-dozen ice packs strapped to various bruises and contusions, would be steaming. He just couldn't understand how some team, any team, could have the temerity to steal a victory that rightfully belonged to the Minnesota Twins. And in his mind, all victories belonged to the Twins.
So he would stew in silence, dragging on a Marlboro and sipping a beer, every muscle in his body still tense. But experience taught me that if I hung around long enough, Gaetti eventually would have a thing or two to say. Usually something like: "A bleeping changeup! He threw me a bleeping changeup on 3-and-2. That's really bad, man. No guts!"
That's the Gary Gaetti I'll always remember. A guy who took losing like a dagger to the heart. He had the fire inside and seemed on the verge of being consumed by it at any moment. That was not the Gary Gaetti who signed with California on Thursday.
Fortunately for him, a new set of teammates will accept him for who he is and not who he was. The Twins never could do that.
Gaetti agreed to a contract worth $11.5 million, roughly the equivalent of the gross national product of Luxembourg. What he'll do with all that money is a mystery. Because during the last few years, money seemed to mean increasingly little to him. His priorities were elsewhere.
You could say that it is both ironic and appropriate that Gaetti is going off to join the Angels. His swift and total conversion to Christianity in late 1988 rivals that of Saul's conversion while on .. the road to Damascus.
I'm convinced that the sudden change in personality and lifestyle did not affect Gaetti's ability to play baseball. Neither did it affect his desire to play. He loved going out there every day. What it did affect, though, was his ability to energize the ballclub, to jump-start it, through the sheer force of his will.
It's not fair, really. Gaetti never asked to become the heart and soul of the Twins. Yet he was. Manager Tony La Russa of the Oakland Athletics lectured one of his young pitchers on that subject right on the mound one day. It seems the kid plunked Gaetti in the ribs. La Russa came flying out of the dugout.
"You don't throw at Gary Gaetti," La Russa recounted later, when asked what he said to his pitcher. "That just gets them worked up. Gaetti makes them go. He's the heart of that team."
Some of his teammates never forgave him when he abdicated the role he never sought to begin with. They could not accept him strictly for his on-field performance, which was still good.
Toward the end of his tenure with the Twins, he seemed to me to be almost like a ghost in the clubhouse. He was there, but he really wasn't. Some of the players felt uncomfortable around him. Others made wisecracks behind his back. He seemed to be spending a lot more time alone.
This move to California is going to be a tremendous thing for him. He'll be playing on natural grass and with a decent team around him. Gaetti could have a monster year.
That's what he will be considered, too. An ingredient. A contributor. Nobody will expect him to fill the clubhouse with his presence or to fire up 24 other guys. The Angels don't need a heart and soul. They need a third baseman.