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G-Man says changes from Christian faith

MINNEAPOLIS -- The change is not apparent as Gary Gaetti steps into the Metrodome batting cage for a few pregame swats.

He still drives prodigious shots into the blue sea of seats in left field with effortless consistency, just as he's been doing for the Minnesota Twins since 1981.

The difference in Gaetti is no more discernible when he takes the field.

``Between the white lines, nothing has changed,'' says teammate Kent Hrbek, ``G-Man's still the best third baseman in the business.''

Indeed if numbers alone told the story of a ball player, there would be nothing different to tell about Gaetti in 1989.

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Another strong season, like the last one and the six before that. Durable. Gritty. Rifle arm. Big bat. Gaetti the ball player is unchanged.

The metamorphosis has occured in Gaetti the man.

You could say G-Man has found G-Man. Or vice versa.

In about the time it takes him to turn on a waist-high fastball, Gaetti turned his life to God in late August of 1988.

``It wasn't a gradual thing at all, and it wasn't something I really planned,'' Gaetti said of his whirlwind born-again Christian experience.

``It all happened in the span of two weeks, maybe three weeks tops, from the time I hurt my knee to the time I came back to the lineup.''

Torn cartilage in his left knee forced Gaetti onto the disabled list for the first time in his pro career on Aug. 21, 1988.

``The knee injury had a lot to do with it, because it gave me some time to think about my life, evaluate what it's all about. It was a combination of a lot of personal things, really, that led me to pick up the Bible and start reading.''

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When Gaetti returned to Tom Kelly's lineup on Sept. 7, following arthroscopic surgery, the startling transformation was already complete.

Gaetti entered the Twins clubhouse with a Bible in hand, and promptly vowed an end to all of the vices which over the years had become trademarks of his swashbuckling personality.

No more post-game beers with Rex (Hrbek). No more celebratory shots of Royal Crown brand whiskey after home wins. No more smoking cigarettes; he was up to a pack a day. No more chewing tobacco. No more foul language.

`Rat' was dead. Just like that.

``It was like a good friend who's suddenly deceased,'' said Hrbek, who shared a special bond with Gaetti since the two met at the Twins rookie camp in 1981.

The friendship between Hrbek and Gaetti grew to hallmark proportions through the years.

They came up through the Twins minor league system together, lost 102 games together in 1982, and won the World Series together in 1987.

Rex and Rat became hunting buddies, drinking buddies, Minnesota's `Brews Brothers'.

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Hrbek was stunned by Gaetti's revelation.

``It wasn't so much a matter of being hurt as it was a matter of being totally shocked,'' Hrbek says. ``It was a day-and-night thing, and it was such a drastic change, it caught me off guard.''

It's taken almost a year for Hrbek to adjust to Gaetti's new demeanor. And while time has normalized the situation, he's sure their relationship will never be quite the same.

``We're still friends, but it's different now. We'll go hunting together, and when we're done, he goes to Bible study or something and I go have a few beers by myself.''

For Gaetti's part, he believes the whole thing about how this affected their friendship was overblown.

``To be honest with you, I think the media made a lot bigger deal out of that than was necessary. Maybe there were some hard feelings or misunderstandings at first, but we overcame them quickly. Kent and I will always be friends.''

Besides, when you complete the kind of lifestyle overhaul that Gaetti made 11 months ago, it shakes up more than your co-workers.

While the Twins Cities media studied whether Gaetti's turn to God would disrupt the Twins' winning chemistry of `87 and `88, Gaetti was dealing with the changing chemistry at home.

In recent months Gaetti and wife Debby have separated. Sweethearts since Gary's minor league days, the Gaettis have two boys; Joseph is seven, Jacob four.

Without detailing the erosion of what had been a storybook 10-year marriage, Gaetti concedes that the separation was caused in large part by his radical move.

``I won't lie to you; our problems were totally tied to my new lifestyle,'' Gaetti said somberly.

``The separation has been the hardest part of all this. It's been very difficult. It's really the only negative to come out of it all.''

Gaetti says he's spending more time with his boys now, and that he's passing along his newfound faith to them.

Gaetti didn't grow up in a religous home, although his mother would occasionally drag him to church. Dad seldom attended services. Sound familiar?

``I think that's the problem with today's society,'' Gaetti offered. ``The men of the household don't accept the responsibility of their spiritual role in the family.''

While some people prefer to keep their spiritual beliefs private, Gaetti advertised his motivation to a national television audience during the All-Star game 10 days ago.

In keeping with a tradition that Hrbek started as a rookie All-Star in 1982, Gaetti penned a message in the palm of his batting glove, and flashed it to the ABC-TV camera upon his introduction.

The message, accompanied by a wide grin, read simply `Jesus is Lord'. Quite a departure from the `Hi Rex' message Gaetti displayed at the `88 All-Star Game.

``I'm commanded now to preach the Gospel, and if the Lord is going to give me a platform like that, with a chance to put his name before a national TV audience, I'm going to keep his word private? No way.''

Gaetti spent five hours in his hotel room reading the Bible the night before the All-Star game. His intentions were premeditated. He knew there was going to be a message, but he couldn't decide what to say.

``The other alternatives were `He is Risen' and `Praise God', but after a lot of thought I decided `Jesus is Lord' was most appropriate,'' he explained.

Despite the tumultuous occurances of the past year, with the Twins losing regularly and his marriage disjointed, Gaetti claims he's finally found himself.

After 30 years on this Earth, Gaetti says he's finally got his priorities straight.

``Years ago, if you'd have asked me `are you a Christian?', I would've said `No, I'm a baseball player,' '' he said

Gaetti laughs and shakes his head at that notion now.

``Not any more. I don't live for baseball anymore. Now I live for Jesus Christ.''

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