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This Angel Caught in Holding Pattern : Baseball: In a trying season, Gaetti is hoping good things come to those who wait.


ANAHEIM — He sits at his locker in a corner of the Angel clubhouse, staring off in the distance, looking past frustration and toward hopelessness. A few lockers down is Kelly Gruber's. A few more down is J.T. Snow's.

Snow, the first baseman who would dramatically decrease Gary Gaetti's playing time, was acquired Dec. 6.

Gruber, the third baseman who could bury Gaetti even deeper on the Angel bench, was acquired Dec. 8.

The one-two punch came in a flurry last winter, and now it is May and Gaetti, a four-time Gold Glove third baseman, is in a place he never wanted to be and is learning about things he never gave much thought.

What do you do when chewing gum and sunflower seeds are a bigger necessity during games than your glove? Gary Joseph Gaetti is discovering that the dugout sometimes is a cold, unforgiving place.

He still can play every day, he tells himself. That .226 batting average last year? It was a fluke. The declining statistics over the last four years? Something he can change.

So he's 34. He came to spring training in better shape than in the last several years, didn't he? He hit well then and proved he could still play, didn't he?

The thoughts come and go. He has to have something to keep himself from going insane.

And then a new day arrives, he walks into the clubhouse, glances at the lineup card . . . and wonders, is it chilly enough again tonight to bring a jacket to the dugout?

He knows things could get even worse. The Angels announced this week that they expect Gruber to re-join the team June 5 in Detroit. Then what?

"I got a look in spring training, but the person who is hurt (Gruber), I'm sure would have gotten much more of a look than me," Gaetti said. "If I play good, it's going to make the trade for Kelly look dumb. If they release me, we all look dumb.

"So what do you do with a guy? You label him. You say he's not an every-day player and you bury him on the bench."

Sure, the Angels will tell you they are committed to a youth movement. But Manager Buck Rodgers says that isn't the only reason Gaetti, a two-time All Star who played an integral part of Minnesota's first World Series championship in 1987, spends most of his time these days on the bench.

"Obviously, I think he's a role player," Rodgers said. "I think he can play more than we're playing him. But I think he's at that point in his career where he could and probably should be a role player.

"He could play 85 to 100 games somewhere. I might be a little high, but I might be a little low."

Gaetti and his agent telephoned the Angels after the trades last winter to ask what was going on. They asked for a trade. Make your own deal, they were told.

Gaetti is still an Angel. And he is batting only .156.

"What you do in my situation is you hear that management and the coaching staff don't really think that you're an every-day player anymore," Gaetti said. "If you're part time, you wonder when are you going to play?

"It depends on the score of the game if you get to pinch-hit. If things are going good for the team as a whole, you don't get to play. Some days, you adjust better than others. Sometimes, it's hard to go on your last at-bat for a week--especially if it was non-productive."

Gaetti, whose 456 at-bats last summer was his lowest since he broke into the big leagues in 1982, has a total of 32 this season. Over an entire season, that projects to 167.

Not exactly the return the Angels were hoping for on the four-year, $11-million deal they gave him before the 1991 season. And so far, they are throwing good money after bad in 1993: He has no homers and only two hits in his last 27 at-bats.

Gaetti said he would even consider returning to the minors if it would help him prove to another organization that he can still play every day.

"I don't know," he said. "I'm not going to prove anything to this organization. There's a chance I could to everybody else. I don't know if it's to that point yet.

"I haven't forgotten how to play, but I want to be ready to play. (Monday night) was the first ground ball I've seen off of a bat in over 20 games.

"If the book on me now is, 'Hey, this guy can't play anymore,' and you've got a bunch of scouts saying that, what is the obvious scenario?

"They'll expect these young kids to do certain things, but I can't believe 18 homers and 66 RBIs (which Gaetti had two years ago) is not enough. They're not even expecting their superstar young kids to hit 18 home runs."

No matter. The newcomers have been quickly embraced. Gaetti has become something of an outcast. He was loudly booed while going 0 for 4 during a rare start at first base Wednesday while Snow was ill.

It wasn't the first time, and he knows it won't be the last. When he pokes his head out of the dugout, he hears the comments. He hears still more each day from fans when he is on his way in and out of the ballpark.

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