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


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."

Those beliefs led Gaetti to distribute leaflets at the 1989 All-Star game detailing his testimony. His transformation has inspired him to speak in tongues in the clubhouse, attaining a trance-like state that apparently frightened some of his teammates and alienated others.

He knew his conversion would alter his relationship with his teammates, at least initially, and affect the chemistry created when the Twins matured and won together. So strong were his new convictions, he could act no other way, even when they drove a wedge between him and his wife, Debby. The two separated but later reconciled.

"I had to separate myself from the things I couldn't do anymore. It was not like I couldn't associate with them, but I had inside a burning desire to say things and live my life a certain way," Gaetti said. "You could say the effect was adverse. It should have been a positive effect on the team, but it turned out to be, at the time, negative."

If they didn't understand him and what he was doing, Gaetti said, that was their loss.

Gaetti has not hidden his beliefs, nor has he proselytized in the Angels' clubhouse. The most overt evidence of his faith surfaced early in spring training. During a drill, one of the coaches, in exasperation, muttered, "Oh, Jesus," and Gaetti scolded him for being blasphemous.

Parrish understood Gaetti's motivation, but has himself chosen to be less publicly demonstrative.

"When you come to understand what the Bible teaches, it clearly says in the Book you're not supposed to take the Lord's name in vain, and people will take exception," Parrish said. "Of course, you need to be flexible. This is not your ordinary environment."

Playing for Angels manager Doug Rader, like Gaetti a third baseman with a deft glove and a fiery nature in his playing days, has eased Gaetti's way during an occasionally difficult transition. There was as much anger as humor in Gaetti's declaration, "I was brutal," after he committed two errors in an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians last weekend, but Rader has been unceasingly supportive.

"It's spring training, but you still don't like to do those things," Gaetti said. "I expect better than that from myself.

"Doug Rader has been a great help to me because he played the position and because he's understanding. Actually, the entire coaching staff has helped. Doug can motivate his people and he don't take no crap. He commands respect from his players and he gets it, and rightly so. I can enjoy a good laugh with him -- but if you miss a sign, you're going to hear about it."

Rader has nothing but praise for Gaetti's attitude and work ethic.

"He's a terrific guy and he's working very hard. He's going to have a real good year," Rader said. "He has a very competitive nature. People who can accept failure easily aren't very productive. I'd think something was wrong if he just laughed at it."

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