Randy (Macho Man) Savage's dream was to make it to Majors (cont,)
Back in the 1960s, Downers Grove, Ill., was the model of suburban bliss. Located 30 miles west of Chicago, the village served as the perfect outpost for commuters who worked in the Windy City, but didn't desire to live there. It boasted a high-achieving school district, shops and restaurants and a nonexistent crime rate. In other words, it was the ideal place for Angelo and Judy Poffo to start a family. In particular, Angelo -- who was born and raised in Downers Grove -- loved the low-key simplicity of things. By night, he was "the Masked Miser" and "the Carpet Bagger," a loathed villain of professional wrestling whose infamous Italian Neckbreaker move shut down opponents. By day, however, he was merely a (albeit large) suburban dad, a proud graduate of DePaul University who stressed academics above all else.
Randy was born on Nov. 15, 1952, and before long he was walking, talking and breathing all things baseball. Though his preferred team was the Cubs, his two favorite players were Cincinnati's Pete Rose (for the hustle) and Johnny Bench (for his status as the game's elite catcher). In 1962, when her oldest son was 10, Judy Poffo signed Randy up for Downers Grove Little League. He was assigned to a team called, oddly, the Moose, which was sponsored by a local VFW lodge. From the very first day, he was a catcher.
"What was immediately noteworthy was that Randy threw the ball back to the pitcher with more velocity than the pitcher pitched the ball to Randy," says Guarnaccia, his childhood friend. "He was definitely the best player in town for his age. There was no doubt about it."
In order to help Randy (and, later, Lanny) develop, his parents built a winterized batting cage (with a pitching machine) beside the house. A one-time catcher at DePaul, Angelo filled Randy's mind with strategies and ideas: how to call a game, how to block the plate, how to see the field, how to emulate players like Bench and Randy Hundley.
Following his sophomore year at Downers Grove High, Randy was shocked to learn that his parents were planning on uprooting the family for 11 months to Hawaii. Angelo had a lucrative opportunity to wrestle on the big island, as well as in Japan, and he also saw it as a chance for his kids to focus solely on baseball. So in 1968-69, the Poffos lived in a small apartment on Kanekapolei Street in Honolulu, and the boys -- to their delight -- simply missed a year of school. "We were home schooled, where we had to write reports for my mother," says Lanny. "But it was nothing formal."
During the time away, Randy and Lanny played baseball nonstop. There were never-ending games of catch, followed by more never-ending games of catch. Though only 16 at the time, Randy made his semipro debut, starting at catcher for the Gouvea's Sausage Phillies. One of his teammates was John Matias, who, two years later, would play outfield for the White Sox. "That time in Hawaii made Randy a different level player," says Lanny. "It helped us both develop in big ways."
The Poffos returned to Illinois, and Randy spent his final two seasons starring for one of the state's better prep teams. But when the 1971 draft came and went, his heart sank. Sure, he could probably follow his father into the family business. But the goal wasn't to become a professional wrestler. It was to play ball.
Which is why, the day after the Los Angeles Dodgers used the 794th and final pick to take Don Stackpole, a (what else?) catcher from Wildomar, Calif., Angelo Poffo forced his son into the car and drove 283 miles to St. Louis, where the Cardinals were holding a two-day open-call tryout camp. In his first at-bat during hitting drills, Randy laced a line drive into the right-center gap that bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double. When the session ended, he was brought into the executive offices and offered a $500-per-month contract and an invitation to join the organization's rookie league club in Tampa. Of the approximately 300 players in attendance, he was the only one to catch the franchise's eye. "No bonus whatsoever," says Lanny. "Randy signed the same day as Keith Hernandez. He was elated. It wasn't about the money. It was so much bigger than that."
"You know what's funny about Randy?" says Jim Walthour. "He was quiet. You wouldn't think that from someone who went on to wrestle like he did. But he really was. A quiet, nice young man."
Walthour is on the other end of the phone. Randy Poffo has been dead for less than 48 hours, and the memories -- inspired by sadness and nostalgia -- come flowing. Long ago, in the blissful summer of '71, the two ballplayers shared a dingy hotel room off Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, Fla. They were mere boys at the time -- Randy not yet 19, Jim just north of 20 -- assigned to the Cardinals' Gulf Coast League team. "We actually signed our contracts at Busch Stadium on the same day," says Walthour, who batted .205 that first season and was out of the game within two years. "Randy was a great guy. A really hard worker, and a kid with a lot of pride."
Unlike the major leagues, where special athletes rule the landscape, rookie ball is a place where baseball players come in all shapes, sizes and skill levels. It's the spot where organizations first figure out which guys can play, which guys might be able to play and couldn't. A whopping 46 men suited up for the GCL Cards in 1971, and only six reached the major leagues. Of those, only three -- outfielders Jerry Mumphrey, Mike Vail and Larry Herndon -- had lengthy careers.