Stardom takes average look draped on Gagne


October 21, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

MINNEAPOLIS -- It is Greg Gagne's curse that no one ever grew up dreaming of being called solid.

Gagne is not simply solid. It's worse than that. He's also reliable, dependable and even that certifier of reliable dependability -- a good family man. These are wonderful qualities, unless you want to be on a shoe commercial someday, and I get the feeling maybe Gagne does.

Face it, people don't get carried away about Gagne. When pressed for some real superlatives, they might say he's above average.

That's not what you want to hear if you dream of being a star.

When Gagne hit a three-run homer in the first game of the World Series, it was as if the Minnesota shortstop had struck a blow for above-average types everywhere. We thought that was enough. We thought -- if we thought about Gagne at all -- that he and all the other Gagnes in the world were content hitting behind the runner, catching most of the ground balls hit near them, doing the things that sportscasters like to say don't show up in the box score and pulling down about $1.5 million a year for their trouble.

Turns out, Gagne wasn't. We discovered this uneasiness about 10 days ago, when, just before Game 3 of the AL playoffs, Gagne announced, completely unsolicited, that he felt underappreciated.

"Sometimes I don't feel as important to the club as the other guys on the team," he said, as jaws dropped everywhere because usually when Gagne gets really wild he says stuff such as "I'm just glad to be here." He continued: "I don't want to take anything away from Kirby Puckett or Kent Hrbek. I don't want to take anything away from Jack Morris. It's just a feeling I have."

Well, here's the deal. He's not as appreciated as Puckett or Hrbek. He's not as appreciated as Jack Morris.

That's because he's Greg Gagne, a 29-year-old never-been-an-All-Star who probably won't ever be.

He catches the ground balls -- he has gone as many as 76 consecutive games without an error -- and he hits the ball pretty well for any shortstop who isn't Cal Ripken, although not as well as people used to think he would, given his .250 lifetime batting average. And that's about it.

But his teammates say, that's plenty. More than plenty. It's wonderful. It's so wonderfully, fabulously, well, solid of him.

"I appreciate the hell out of him," said Hrbek.

"He's a quiet guy, a steady guy," said catcher Brian Harper. "But I personally feel he's one of the best shortstops in baseball."

Maybe he should be flashier. That might get him noticed.

"I'm not the flashy type," Gagne said. "I grew up watching the Red Sox and I wanted to play shortstop just like Rick Burleson. You go in the hole, get the ball and throw the guy out."

If he had grown up watching Ozzie Smith, he could have taken the field doing flips. That gets attention.

In his youth, he was a self-described hellion, but he got over that, too. Found religion and found the, uh, solid, respectable life.

But there is another way to get noticed. The trick is to do things better than you normally do just at the moment when everyone is watching. He did some of that in 1987, the last time the Twins were in the World Series, hitting two homers in the playoffs and one in the Series. In his 137 previous games that season, he'd hit seven.

And Saturday night, he hit another, giving him four postseason homers in 18 games. It may not be Reggie Jackson-like, but a couple more at the right moments and you can get to be Bucky Dent.

Why all the postseason power?

"I don't know," Gagne said. "Maybe it's because I'm so focused, but I try to be focused every game. I know I'm excited when I get to the plate. Maybe it's adrenaline.

"I know I had no idea when I went to the plate I was going to hit a homer. I was surprised. But I guess I'm usually surprised when I hit one."

He had this huge smile on his face as all 172 pounds of him rounded the bases, and when he got to the dugout, the TV monitor showed him laughing. That's what these moments will do.

Later, he would be asked about the importance of being noticed. He took the question and paused.

"Is it important to be noticed?" he said, and then he paused for maybe another 15 seconds.

"I don't want to talk about that now. I just want to enjoy this World Series."

And so he is. When he got to the ballpark yesterday, he stepped out of his car to a mob of fans, some carrying books or pictures for him to autograph, some carrying camcorders to record his every moment, all singing his praises. Gagne was wearing sunglasses, and as he broke through the mob to enter the Metrodome, he looked exactly like a star.

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