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This minor-league flop is a big hit in wrestling

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While toiling in the low minor leagues for four years in the 1970s, Randy Poffo dreamed of getting a World Series ring.

He went on to win not one, but two world championships, becoming a household name and even getting some endorsement deals in the process.

It didn't happen in baseball, however.

Instead of wearing a ring, the former switch-hitting catcher/outfielder/first baseman/designated hitter wrestles in one.

Trading in his baseball cap and spikes for a neon cowboy hat and a pair of wrestling boots, Poffo joined the ranks of professional wrestling as "Macho Man" Randy Savage.

A two-time World Wrestling Federation champion, Savage is best known for his outlandish costumes, Slim Jim commercials and his gravelly voiced catch phrase, "Oh, yeah!"

"I traded my field of dreams for a ring of screams," said Savage, 41, who played in the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox organizations from 1971 to 1975.

Many former professional football players -- as well as some basketball players and boxers -- have competed in professional wrestling, but Savage is believed to be the only ex-baseball player on the circuit.

"My first dream was to become a wrestler," said Savage, whose father, Angelo, and brother, Lanny, also wrestled. "There was just no way after I graduated from high school because of my size, which was about 170-175 pounds."

A three-sport athlete in Illinois, Savage -- who bulked up for his wrestling career and is now 6 feet 1, and weighs 237 pounds -- decided to pursue a career in professional baseball instead. He had been a two-time all-state player, establishing a school record for batting average (.524) that still stands.

After high school, Savage practiced daily in a batting cage that he constructed in his home.

He got his break in 1971 when he was signed by the Cardinals at a tryout at Busch Stadium. Approximately 200 hopefuls attended the tryout, but Savage was the only player signed.

Savage, who had a .254 lifetime average and 16 home runs in 289 professional games, never made it above Single-A.

During his stint in the minors, Savage -- a catcher and natural right-hander -- transformed himself into left-handed throwing first baseman in an attempt to prolong his career.

Savage became ambidextrous after he suffered a separated right shoulder during a collision at home plate in 1973. The injury prompted his release from the Cardinals.

"They gave up on me, but I signed with the Reds and had a pretty good year at Tampa, but the shoulder still wasn't real good," he said. "So for eight months, I worked real hard at throwing left-handed.

"It was incredibly tough, but I just kept working, throwing the ball 1,500 times against the wall a day. I then signed with the White Sox as a left-handed first baseman. It's one of the only times it's been done."

His best season had come in 1974 at Tampa, when he finished third in the Florida State league in RBIs with 66. There, Savage competed against future Orioles Eddie Murray, Gary Roenicke, Mike Flanagan and Dennis Martinez.

As a member of the Orangeburg Cardinals of the Western Carolina League in 1973, Savage roomed with Tito Landrum, who is best known for his 10th-inning home run as an Oriole that clinched the 1983 American League Championship Series against the White Sox.

Much like his "Macho Man" persona in the WWF, Savage was an intense competitor on the diamond, Landrum said.

"Randy was a very aggressive player, and he was well-liked on the team because of that aggressiveness," Landrum said. "Unfortunately, much like the rest of us, he had a problem hitting the curve.

"But his intensity is real. I can remember him setting up a ring in the locker room and wrestling with the guys. He told us he was going to be a wrestler someday."

That day came after his release from the White Sox organization in 1975, although there has been speculation that Savage had wrestled under a mask during the off-season.

"That might have happened or it might not have," said Savage, who wrestled for regional promotions before joining the internationally known WWF in 1985. "I probably should have played baseball under a mask, not just the catcher's mask."

Savage had an opportunity to show off his wrestling skills during a bench-clearing brawl in 1974 between Tampa and West Palm Beach.

He charged the mound after getting hit in the face with the pitch. And he wasn't even in the batter's box at the time.

"I was on the on-deck circle," Savage said. "The pitcher thought I was looking at his pitches too closely.

"So I'm getting ready to hit before the inning started and all of the sudden I turn around and there's a blur coming. And I look and there's the baseball, right against my face. I hit the mound just like that, both benches emptied and we had a brawl."

Savage -- who was in Baltimore last month to promote next Sunday's King of the Ring pay-per-view wrestling card at the Baltimore Arena -- said he still follows major-league baseball, although he doesn't have an allegiance to any team.

When he attends major-league games, Savage is sometimes asked to do guest commentary, as he did with Mel Proctor and Jim Palmer during the Orioles-Yankees game at New York on May 22.

"I talk to a lot of the players who come to the matches and seek me out," he said. "Last year I, threw out the first ball at Tiger Stadium and rapped with Sparky Anderson awhile. They all treat me great."

There are some obvious differences between baseball and pro wrestling. No one would mistake former major-leaguer Jimmy Piersall, who managed Savage at Orangeburg, with ex-WWF manager The Lovely Elizabeth, for instance.

But Savage also sees some similarities -- like comparing the ability to hit a curveball to executing his patented flying elbow drop off the top rope.

"When I'm doing that elbow off the top rope, if the person moves, I'm in trouble," he said. "When I'm hitting the ball and it drops off the table, I'm in trouble, too. In both cases, you can't hit a moving target."

After 20 years in the wrestling business, Savage -- who splits his time between wrestling and broadcasting for the WWF -- said he has no regrets about the path his career has taken.

"The baseball thing seemed like a negative when I got the pink slip, but actually it was the best break I ever had," he said. "Otherwise I wouldn't be styling and profiling like I am now.

"I've done the thing in the ring for a long time now,and I've done it very well. And at the risk of being conceited and egotistical, I was the best there ever was."

Oh, yeah!

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