MINNEAPOLIS — And the winner is: Gary Gaetti. No matter what happens. Three weeks ago he was a name heard only in Minnesota and a few select baseball circles. And now you’ve got Whitey Herzog wishing he had him and Sparky Anderson wishing he had him and a nation’s worth of media fantasizing how great it would be if Gaetti graced their clubhouses during the regular season — and not just during this wacky World Series.

Hats off to Gary. Fielding? Hitting? Personality? Chalk ’em up. He has lived a mini-career is this brief post-season. And the fact is, the Twins could lose Game 6 to the Cardinals today, could surrender the Series, fumble away a beautiful Cinderella story — and Gaetti would still walk off in glass slippers. Made in the shade.

Which, come to think of it, is something he might say. “Made in the shade.” Or: “More beer.” And that is part of his appeal. Rarely in today’s baseball world of big shots and silent brooders do you encounter a regular guy this . . . regular. Not sweet, like those athletic bible-thumpers. Not crude, like the rat-in-a-box Dave Kingmans. Uh-uh. Gary Gaetti is small-town fabric, tough and true, the kind who’d wrestle you, beat you, drink you under the table, then drive you home and say, “See ya tomorrow, OK?”

There is a dash of Nicolas Cage goofball here, and some Tony Danza macho —

but with a big nose and receding hairline to keep a human edge on any Hollywood fantasies. Just as well. Gaetti, 29, will probably never be more than the face he sees in the mirror each morning.

That, and a hell of a ball player. He’s there when it counts “You can see it in his eyes,” says Herzog, who, remember, is managing the opposing team in this World Series. “When Gary comes to the plate he’s not just up there. He wants to beat you. Bad. We had a chance to sign him in the 70s. I wish we had.”

Why not? Think of a critical moment in this crazy Twins’ post-season, and more than likely Gaetti was involved. In the first game against Detroit in the AL Championships, somebody needed to prove that Doyle Alexander was beatable, despite his 9-0 record. Enter Gaetti. Two home runs in his first two at- bats. In Game 4, with the Tigers threatening to even the series — enter Gaetti, who called for that fateful pickoff of Darrell Evans at third base.

He had the winning RBI in Game 2 of this Series, smacked a two-run triple Thursday off a smoking Todd Worrell. He has been flawless in the field, is batting .316 — and though his team has dropped three straight, if anyone is likely to burst forth today . . . . “You learn as you go along in these things,” he says, “I think that’s why Games 6 and 7 are usually best in a series. I’m optimistic.”

Too often the word “competitive” in sports is just a euphemism for “total jerk.” Not so Gaetti. Here is the son of an Illinois railroad worker, a tough guy who reeeeally wants to win yet was the first to weep at the Twins pennant-winning reception; a guy given the MVP award of the AL Championships, who regretted that “the awards ceremony kept me celebrating with my teammates.” He is free agent after this World Series, on the brink of a mint, yet after Thursday’s Game 5 loss he said of a bunt single by Ozzie Smith: “It was my play. I vegged out. I blew it.”

Vegged out? Who was the last player to admit that? Vegged out? He’s frank and unpredictable Well. You get that stuff from Gaetti. His post-game interviews have become a favorite in this Series. He stands by his locker, drags slowly on cigaret, like some crime boss in “The Godfather,” and answers slowly, frankly, unpredictably. He knocked Tom Lawless for showboating after his Game 4 home run. He said he might ask Smith to teach him a back flip “but with me it would come out a forward roll.”

Here was his reaction Thursday — the Twins’ lowest moment so far — when someone asked could they win the last two at the Metrodome:

“Yeah . . . yeah, yeah. We can. And — that’s what we’re gonna do. Yeah! We’re gonna win two” — his voice was rising now — “and . . . THAT’S . . . A FACT . . . JACK!

“I NEED A BEER!” he announced, grinning wildly, and marched through the startled crowd of reporters in search of one.

So much for depression.

On he goes. When the Twins began this post-season march, they were Kirby Puckett and Co. No more. Gaetti has gained recognition he probably deserved for some time. Air-tight defense. Tenacious hitting. And spirit? Well. Both Anderson and Herzog have been around too long to have their heads turned by mere talent; what they see in this guy is liver, lungs, heart and kidneys for the game. You can’t fudge that.

So here come the Twins, what might be the last game of their charming season, plucking the final leaf off destiny’s clover. She loves them, she loves them not. At least she knows them now. The third baseman especially. Hats off to Gary. The champion in this series is yet to be determined. The winner is obvious.

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