Born-again Gary Gaetti denies fervor for religion has hurt his ballplaying

March 24, 1991|By Helene Elliott | Helene Elliott,Los Angeles Times

MESA ARIZ. — MESA, Ariz. -- Once, the letters "B.Y.O.B." were, to Gary Gaetti, an invitation to excess, an irresistible call to drink and party with the same passion that compelled him to hurl himself in front of ground balls at third base for the Minnesota Twins.

But those letters have taken on a vastly different meaning.

As scrawled on the chalkboard in the California Angels' spring training clubhouse, those letters aren't the traditional party invitation, "Bring Your Own Bottle." They stand for "Bring Your Own Bible," as Gaetti does to the weekly Bible study classes he attends with about a dozen of his new teammates.

Same letters, distinctly different meaning. A different life for Gaetti since 1988, when he became a born-again Christian.

There are those who say Gaetti has also become a different ballplayer since his "rebirth," that at 32, he has lost the fire that drove him to win four Gold Gloves and to exceed 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in both in 1986 and '87.

His home run production has dropped from 31 in the Twins' 1987 championship season to 28 in '88, to 19 in '89 and to 16 last season.

His batting average has also tumbled. He peaked at .301 in 1988, hit .251 in '88 and fell to .229 last season. Noting that a typographical error in the Angels' media guide listed his batting average as .299, he smiled. "I like that one," he said.

Gaetti doesn't like hearing the widespread contention that zeal for his new faith diverted his energy from playing to praying, and led to the Twins' descent from World Series champions in 1987 to last in the American League West in 1990.

He cites physical problems -- a knee operation three years ago and back and stomach ailments in 1989 -- as the cause of his problems, not his spiritual awakening. And while he says he will never again be the hard-living Gaetti of old, he believes he can again be the hard-hitting Gaetti of a few years ago, the one the Angels had in mind when they signed him as a new-look free agent for a guaranteed $11.4 million over four years.

"He's not a .229 hitter. He's .260, .270, what he's supposed to be and what he always did," said Angels batting instructor Deron Johnson, who began giving Gaetti intensive tutelage last weekend. "He's still young, strong and quick. He has the bat speed. We've got three weeks to go, and he'll be there opening time."

Time, for Gaetti, began when he became a born-again Christian.

"Basically, God was tired of my old way of life and put the skids on it. Basically, I yielded to that force," said Gaetti, whose conversion was inspired by pamphlets he read while recovering from his knee operation.

"[During convalescence] I was separated from the thing that meant my entire life -- baseball. I was injured. You hear something that makes you think what life really, really is. I got really, really [concerned] about my own well-being and my own relationship with God. I knew it was time to make a change and that was the only way to do it . . .

"I wasn't a vicious person or malicious. I wasn't a drug smuggler. But there's really no degree of sin. Sin is sin. You break man's law, you go to jail. You break God's law, you go to hell . . . I'm the same person. God let me keep all the good things, but I'm free from all the dead weight that I had."

Gaetti believes he can be an exemplary Christian and an exceptional baseball player. Angels catcher Lance Parrish, 12 years a Christian and eight times an all-star, agrees that these pursuits can mesh.

"Just because you're Christian doesn't mean you're less aggressive. You might not throw your helmet or swear, but the intensity is still there," Parrish said. "I don't see he's any different as a player. He's still aggressive and he's a competitor . . .

"I believe the same things he believes. I haven't been around him long enough to tell you if he's a different person, but obviously if he says he's a different person, he is. From my way of looking at it, it's all for the better. If people have questions and doubts, maybe they ought to look into it. It's wrong for people to point fingers without understanding him and his beliefs."

But even his closest friend, Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek, found it difficult to understand the fervor of Gaetti's new beliefs.

The two had been inseparable since they met at Class A Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1977. They drank together, roomed together, hunted together during the off-season. That ended when Gaetti was born again. Hrbek said of the change in Gaetti, "It's almost like he passed away."

Gaetti said Hrbek's words were taken out of context and weren't as chilling or final as they sound. The two worked out once last winter, by Gaetti's account, but Gaetti didn't consult him before choosing the Angels' offer over a bid by the Twins that had many incentive clauses but less guaranteed money.

"We talked a whole bunch," Gaetti said. "We were real close and we always will be. Still, there has to be a separation at some point, not just from Kent, because of my beliefs."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.