Better than you remember: Gary Gaetti

July 5th, 2020

While we’re waiting for the 2020 season to begin, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].

Career: MIN 1981-90, CAL 1991-93, KCR 1993-96, STL 1996-98, CHC 1998-99, BOS 2000
Accolades: All-Star 1988-89

You know a position that feels like it has started to become lost in Major League Baseball? The “professional hitter.” I don’t mean “designated hitter,” or guy-who-can-hit-but-can’t-field. I mean the sort of veteran guy who travels from team to team, have-bat-will-travel, showing up as someone who can reliably hit a line drive when you need one, put up 20 homers or so and not embarrass you in the field and then roam on along to another team the next year. The sportswriter Joe Posnanski once posited a few names of “professional hitters.” Raul Ibanez. Matt Stairs. Ray Lankford. Those sorts of guys. Not great hitters, not Hall of Famers. But guys who help you out. Guys who help you win.

There aren’t many guys like that anymore. Hunter Pence made a little run at it last year. Kendrys Morales. David Freese, maybe. Steve Pearce?

To me: The epitome of this guy was Gary Gaetti. Gaetti wasn’t a particularly patient hitter, and while in his heyday he might have had some power, it’s not like he was chasing any home run records or anything. Gaetti only hit over .300 once in his entire career. But one thing was certain, from the beginning of his career in 1981 to the end of it in 2000: When you put him in the lineup, he’d hit the ball hard for you. Those guys turned out to be pretty handy.

Gaetti grew up in Centralia, Ill., and was so unheralded a high school player that in college, he played at Lake Land Community College in Mattoon, Ill., from 1978-79. (His Baseball Reference page has this wrong, by the way, listing him as playing for Lincoln Land Community College. He went to Lake Land, and I can prove it: I grew up in the tiny town of Mattoon and am reliably informed that Gaetti played in the first baseball game I ever saw in person.) He was so impressive that, after transferring to Northwest Missouri State University, the Twins drafted him in the first round of the June Draft in 1979. He hit plenty in the Minors and eventually was called up in September 1981. He homered in his first MLB at-bat, off a knuckleball from Charlie Hough.

The next year he was installed as the Twins’ third baseman, and while his OBP was a problem (.280), he hit 25 homers, and no one was paying attention to OBP back then anyway. The Twins were lousy for the first five years of Gaetti’s career, not notching a single winning record from 1982-86. That 1986 season was when it started to turn around, though. It was Gaetti’s best season, with 34 homers, 108 RBIs and his first Gold Glove, but more to the point, it was the year when Tom Kelly took over midseason as manager. The Twins were about to turn everything around.

The Twins only won 87 games in 1987, but behind the pitching of Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven, and the fun foursome of Gaetti, Kent Hrbek (Gaetti’s peer and his closest friend at the time), Tom Brunansky and, of course, Kirby Puckett, the Twins won a weak AL West, beat the Tigers in the American League Championship Series (in which Gaetti won MVP) and outlasted the Cardinals in the World Series, a series most memorable for how insanely loud the Metrodome was for the four games the Twins won there. He also had a very memorable collision at home plate with catcher Steve Lake in that Game 7.

Once Gaetti had his ring, he was Twins royalty, and after hitting over .300 for that only time in his career in 1988, he settled into the player he’d be the rest of his career: That professional hitter. He made his only two All-Star Games in 1988 and '89 -- a moment at that All-Star Game actually led to a rift between him and his friend Hrbek -- and then left as a free agent in 1991 to sign with the Angels, missing out on the 1991 Twins title.

After being with one team for the first half of his career, Gaetti began his nomadic period for the second half. He was a disappointment for the Angels, hitting just well enough to stay in the lineup but not good enough to help the team win much, and halfway through the contract, the Angels cut bait on him and released him. The Royals signed him, getting him back to his native Midwest, and he thrived, hitting 35 homers in 1995, falling just one short of Steve Balboni’s record (which lasted until Mike Moustakas finally beat it a couple of years ago, and before Jorge Soler destroyed it last year). That was also the only Silver Slugger Award he won in his career. Having revived his career after the Anaheim mess, Gaetti went after something he hadn’t had since that 1987 season: A postseason run.

He found it, still in the Midwest. The Cardinals had just fired Joe Torre and hired Tony La Russa, and the new manager was looking for veterans to fill in around the team’s core of Lankford, Brian Jordan and Royce Clayton (who had just been acquired to take over for Ozzie Smith, much to Ozzie’s chagrin). Gaetti, 37 at this time, fit the bill perfectly, joining Ozzie (41), Dennis Eckersley (41), Rick Honeycutt (42), Tony Fossas (38), Willie McGee (37) and Mike Gallego (35) to somehow cobble together a most unlikely NL Central crown. After a sweep of the Padres in the NL Division Series in which Gaetti went 1-for-11, he was a lifesaver in the NLCS against the Braves, including a grand slam off Greg Maddux in Game 2 of that series. (Your author will chime in here again to note that this home run was on his 21st birthday, and therefore he only barely remembers it.)

The Cardinals would end up blowing a 3-1 lead in that series, and two years later, the year of McGwire and Sosa, the Cardinals actually released Gaetti, who then was picked up by … the Cubs. Like with Kansas City years earlier, he thrived after being released, hitting .320 with eight homers in 37 games and helping the Cubs reach the playoffs. He’d play in his final postseason that year, beaten by the Braves again.

He had one more year with the Cubs and then came back, at the age of 41, for a brief five-game run with the Red Sox in 2000. His last RBI was a sacrifice fly off Johan Santana -- from Charlie Hough to Johan Santana, the true life of a professional hitter.

One final fun fact about Gaetti: Remember when Roger Clemens came back at the age of 50 to pitch to his son on the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters? Gaetti was his manager. That was 34 years after my parents and I watched him play for Lake Land. He’d have still been hitting then, if you’d let him.

Send me the player you’d love to have me write about at [email protected].