Mark Story: Flynn, Madison fondly recall Macho Man from their minor-league days

Flynn, Madison fondly recall a quiet Poffo from their minor-league days

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 29, 2011 

On May 20, professional wrestling icon "Macho Man Randy Savage" died in a jeep accident in Florida after the 58-year-old suffered a massive heart attack.

In Lexington, former major-league baseball player Doug Flynn cried when he got the word. "Olga and I both did," Flynn said of his wife.

Heading to a vacation at Yellowstone National Park, ex-University of Kentucky baseball coach Keith Madison got a text message from his son, Tyler, with news of Savage's death.

"It really hit me hard," Madison said. "I got really sad."

The world might have remembered Savage for his flamboyant pro-wrestling persona — the bandanas and cowboy hats; the giant sunglasses; the raspy voiced "ooohhh yeah!" — from his days in Vince McMahon's WWF (now WWE).

Flynn and Madison have very different recollections.

The guy they knew was not Randy Savage at all, but Randy Poffo, the wrestler's real name. They both knew Poffo not as a wrestler/entertainer, but as a fellow minor-league baseball player.

In the Reds' chain

Randy Poffo signed with the St. Louis Cardinals out of high school in Illinois as an undrafted free agent in 1971. He spent three years as a catcher in the Cardinals' minor-league system, never rising above Class A. Then he was released.

For the 1974 season, Poffo was picked up by the Cincinnati Reds and sent to the Tampa Tarpons of the Class A Florida State League. At the time, Madison and Flynn were also in the Cincinnati minor-league system.

As a baseball player, the son of longtime professional wrestler Angelo Poffo had some power at the plate and liked to show off a strong throwing arm, Madison said.

"Randy was a good ballplayer, not a great one," Madison said. "He was an incredibly hard worker, the kind of guy who got to the ballpark early and stayed late."

As a young ballplayer, Poffo's personality was light years away from the brash face he later showed pro-wrestling fans.

"I don't remember Randy saying all that much," Flynn said. "We found out his dad was a pro wrestler, we gave him a hard time, how fake it was. Even then, we couldn't really get him to talk a lot. He was just a very quiet guy."

In his one year in the Reds' system, the left-handed-hitting Poffo hit .232 with nine home runs and 66 RBI.

During his final season in the Cardinals' chain, Poffo had suffered a badly separated right shoulder.

"With us, he had more shoulder problems," Madison recalled. "I remember him coming back after hurting his shoulder and trying to turn himself into a left-handed-throwing first baseman instead of a right-handed-throwing catcher."

The problem with that, Madison said, was that Poffo had enough pop in his bat to perhaps move up the ladder as a catcher, but he didn't have enough to do so as a first baseman (a position where more offensive production is expected).

The Reds cut him loose after the 1974 season. He never played pro ball again.

Yet he would have a second act with Flynn and Madison right here in Lexington.

'Thought I was dead'

Unlike Poffo, Lexington native Flynn's major-league dreams came true. In an 11-year big-league career, the slick-fielding middle infielder was a reserve on Cincinnati's 1975 and '76 World Series champions and won a Gold Glove for the New York Mets in 1980.

Madison did not make it to The Show but, in 1979, was hired as head baseball coach at the University of Kentucky. He held the job until 2003, winning more than 700 games.

After his baseball career ended, Poffo went into the family business. By this time, Angelo Poffo ran the International Championship Wrestling promotion out of Lexington. Randy came here and began to develop the act that eventually made him famous.

He also reconnected with two old baseball buddies.

During the 1981 Major League Baseball strike, Flynn was singing with The Greg Austin Band in a Lexington nightspot when he saw a large man walking toward him. The guy was wearing a bandanna, a leather jacket and a pair of jeans with the letters M-A-C-H-O M-A-N down the side.

"He looked like a biker," Flynn said. "I was thinking, 'what have I done to him?' I thought I was dead.'"

It was Poffo.

After that, Flynn and Olga invited Madison and his wife, Sharon, out to dinner at a Lexington steak house. During the drive, Flynn asked whether the Madisons minded if another guest joined them.

"We're in the back seat with the windows down," Madison recalled. "We stop, and here comes this huge guy with long hair, wearing kind of wild clothes, and I'm like, 'what in the world is this?' "

Sticking his head inside the car window, the large man said "Madison, Poffo here."

In Lexington, Poffo called on his buddies for help promoting his second career.

At the wrestler's behest, Madison once reported to the studios of WTVQ where the ICW filmed its weekly television shows.

"Randy said nobody (in the wrestling audience) believed he had really played minor-league baseball," the former UK coach said. "So I did an interview in which I talked about playing with him in Tampa and that he had been a good player."

Another time, Poffo was slated to be in a cage match at Henry Clay High School. He asked Flynn whether he would be the "guest" referee.

As a major-league baseball player who had played on two World Series champions for the nearby Reds, Flynn was used to the hometown-hero treatment in Lexington.

This night, not so much. "I walk in, and the fans are calling me names I'd never heard before," Flynn said. "It was like, BOOOOOOOOO! They're screaming, 'It's not fair, you are his buddy. How can you be a fair referee?' "

Eventually, Flynn said, he took the microphone at ringside and lit into Savage, saying "just because we were minor-league teammates doesn't mean we were friends. In baseball, you have to be a team player. Randy Savage is here because he's not a team player; he's just in it for himself."

At the end of that spiel, Flynn said, Savage leaped up on the cage and started yelling at the baseball player. Savage's opponent promptly pounded Randy in the back with a chair. That's when they rang the bell to start the match.

"After it was over, Randy had won," Flynn said. "I go back in the locker room, and he's already in the shower. I say, 'Is everything all right?' He says, 'That was great. Would you like to come on the road with us?' "

Losing touch

Before Poffo left Kentucky for good, Madison said, the wrestler told him his career almost ended here.

After a show at a high school in Eastern Kentucky, Poffo was walking to his car when an elderly woman approached him. He thought she was going to ask for an autograph — until she cracked him over the head with a tire iron.

"Randy had beaten her guy, and she was upset," Madison said. "I can't remember where he said he was, but he said he spent the night in the local hospital. He showed me the scar."

After Poffo moved from Lexington on his climb toward national celebrity, Madison said, he never spoke with him again.

"It bothers me now that I didn't do more to stay in touch," Madison said.

Flynn said that after his major-league playing career had ended, he was in Florida for a fantasy baseball camp and ran into Poffo at a mall where the wrestler was doing an appearance to raise money for a fireman killed in the line of duty.

That was the last time he ever talked to Poffo.

Says Flynn: "I really believe, even after he became so big in wrestling, Randy would have traded it all to have made the big leagues. Randy loved baseball, loved it."

Says Madison: "The guy you saw on TV was an act, was nothing close to the Randy Poffo I knew. Randy was a quiet guy, a good guy, with a good heart. I hope people could see that."

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