Randy (Macho Man) Savage's dream was to make it to Majors (cont.)
The take on Poffo was mixed. In 35 games, he batted .286 (best for any regular), with a team-high two home runs (the ballparks were enormous) and a .492 slugging percentage. He worked his rear off, usually staying late after workouts and games to run the outfield and practice throwing down to second. He also possessed unusually strong forearms -- not overly muscular, but thick and tight.
"He used to do, like, 1,500 sit-ups every morning," says Jethro Mills, a pitcher with the team. "That says something." (Angelo Poffo actually held the world record for sit-ups, once completing 6,033 in four hours and 10 minutes). Yet Poffo was also as slow as mud, and his swing -- while dynamic when he made contact -- was long and twitchy. "He was average in a lot of areas," says Mike Moore, who served as a longtime minor league general manager in the 1970s and later became the president of Minor League Baseball. "Didn't run fast, average bat, average defensively. But a super individual."
Because the days of summer baseball are long and the minds of young players are often devilish, the intense Poffo proved a great mark. Teammates loved the kid, but also laughed at his never-say-die approach to everything. Though he was anything but obnoxiously competitive, Poffo found motivation in proving others wrong. If someone said he couldn't throw a baseball from the outfield to home on one hop, he did it. If someone said he couldn't hit the tree behind the leftfield wall, he did it, too. Hence, one day, while Poffo sat alone in the clubhouse, a gaggle of Cardinals spoke loudly of the atomic sit-up, and how nobody --absolutely nobody -- could successfully unleash one.
"What's the atomic sit-up?" Poffo asked.
"What," replied a teammate, "you think you can do it?"
"Hell," he said, "if it's a sit-up, I sure can."
Poffo was told to get on the floor in sit-up position. One teammate would line up behind him, place a towel over Poffo's eyes and try and hold his arms down. "And Randy had to break free and do a sit-up," says Mills, laughing. "So it was up to him to fight and fight and put up a full effort." Someone shouted Go!, and Poffo -- eyes covered -- struggled forward, trying to sit up. "While this is happening, another guy pulls down his pants and stands in front of Randy, his ass hanging in front of Randy's face. Randy's fighting, fighting, fighting, and suddenly the guy holding his arms just let's go."
With that, the future WWF heavyweight champion found his face in another man's anus.
"Maybe the funniest thing I saw all year," says Mills. "But Randy could laugh about it. He was a good sport."
Despite a productive rookie run, Poffo wasn't promoted. He returned to Sarasota for the 1972 season and continued his path as a marginal prospect with good pop but only so-so potential. Though his three home runs (in 52 games) led the team, there was nothing about his game -- save for his throwing arm -- that suggested he possessed genuine major league talent.
He did, however, possess genuine major league smarts.
As highly touted teammates like Mumphrey and Vail made comfortable salaries, Poffo battled to survive on $500 a month. Yet while he lacked the natural baseball ability to make it big, his ability in another area came in handy. "You wouldn't believe how much money Randy made in the minors from playing cards," says Lanny. "He'd make sure to play with all the bonus babies, and he'd take them to the cleaners. Was he the best baseball player? No. But he had a brain like a razor blade -- very sharp. I always said, Randy belonged on ESPN with the poker players."
Once again, Poffo began 1973 in the Gulf Coast League. But then, just when he appeared to be on his way out, something amazing happened: His bat came alive. Poffo batted .344 in 25 games, and midway through the season was euphoric when the organization promoted him to Class A Orangeburg of the Western Carolinas League.
He was assigned to room with a young outfielder named Tito Landrum, who would go on to play nine major league seasons. "Every time we saw each other, we'd always in front of friends, make a big deal about who owed who for the last month's rent," Landrum recently told the Baseball History Examiner. "To be honest with you, right down to this day I couldn't tell you if I owed the last month's rent or he owed the last month's rent."
If professional baseball was the dream, Orangeburg, S.C., proved nightmarish. The Cardinals played in dilapidated Mirmow Field, often swimming through cheesecake-thick layers of humidity. The surface was a rock-and-mud salad, the stands were 70 percent empty; the team finished 50-72. Plus, the ball club was managed by Jimmy Piersall, the one-time Red Sox slugger whose mental stability was often in question. "Man, was he ever crazy," says Bill Lorillard, a lefthanded reliever with the team. "On Opening Day in Orangeburg that season, he was standing on the third base side and the umpire was brushing off the plate. Jimmy slid down the line and took out the umpire for no apparent reason."
Poffo had started in the Gulf Coast League, but upon being promoted he found himself either on the bench or spelling others at catcher or first. He hit .250 in 116 at-bats, and showed little. A highlight came late in the season when Guarnaccia, a fourth-round draft pick of the Phillies now playing for Spartanburg, stepped up to the plate while Poffo was catching. The two smiled at each other -- a couple of kids from suburban Illinois, reunited in a gnat-infested minor league stadium. "When I got up there Randy looked at me and said, 'I'll tell you what pitches are coming.' And he did," Guarnaccia says. "That was just loyalty to a friend. Nothing more."
Poffo's season concluded shortly thereafter, when he separated his right shoulder in a home plate collision. At season's end, the Cardinals released him.
"That was hard for Randy," says Lanny. "I don't think he took it well, because he saw it as perhaps the end of the road."
There was one last chance. With a vacant spot on their Class A Florida State League club, the Cincinnati Reds signed Poffo and assigned him to the Tampa Tarpons. Though he batted only .232, he paced the team with 131 games, 461 at-bats, nine home runs and 66 RBIs. "Honestly, he didn't have the talent to go any farther," says Moore, who was the Tarpons' general manager. "He just didn't. But I'll never forget this -- one day [manager] Russ Nixon and I got to the stadium at 1 in the afternoon, and I peeked out onto the field and saw these baseballs flying across the diamond. It was Randy, all alone, with a bucket of balls, standing in center and throwing them one by one to home plate, all with his left hand. I said, 'Randy, what are you doing?' He looked at me and said, 'Trying to make myself more valuable.' He was that type of guy."
With the season and, as it turned out, his baseball career coming to a completion, Poffo seemed resigned to the fact that he'd never crouch behind the plate at Busch Stadium and hear the roar of the crowd as a Bob Gibson fastball slammed into his glove. It just wasn't realistic, and no matter how hard he worked it was never quite enough.
There was, however, a neon sign of things to come. Midway through a game against the Winter Haven Red Sox, Poffo was preparing to bat when Rac Slider, the opposing manager, signaled for a pitching change. As the opposing lefthander warmed up, Poffo walked up to the plate and timed the pitches. "So the pitcher just rears back and drills Randy in the helmet," says Don Werner, a Tampa catcher. "Randy charged the mound and started fighting the guy. We were all wondering what in the world he was doing."
Little did anyone know, Randy Poffo's baseball career was days away from completion.
Little did anyone know, Randy (Macho Man) Savage's wrestling career had just begun.