Baseball can bring out 'Animal' for everyone
I already had promoted his appearance this morning, and his arrival was much anticipated.
When Paul Lo Duca heard I had invited George "The Animal" Steele to the Washington Nationals' exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers yesterday at Space Coast Stadium, Lo Duca said, "You gotta bring him in the clubhouse."
And when manager Manny Acta learned The Animal was going to be my guest today, he said, "Bring him into my office. I'm not to the point where I have celebrities come to my office like Tony La Russa brings Bobby Knight or something."
But I had no assuranes he would show up as planned. He could have figured the invite came from some lunatic wrestling fan claiming to be a sportswriter and blown it off. After all, he is The Animal. He had been in the ring with all the greats - Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan. He was perhaps the biggest heel in the history of wrestling - certainly the most bizarre with a signature move of tearing up turnbuckles with his teeth. So it was a leap of faith to believe he would actually show up - The Animal lives in Cocoa Beach - to watch an exhibition game with me. I flipped up my cell phone, went to my address book and found the listing simply called "Animal." He assured me he was coming, which was good news or else I was going to have to show up in the Nationals clubhouse with a shaved head, a much hairier back and doing my best grunts of "Backlund ... break" There was no need to fear, though. Jim Myers and his wife, Pat, met me in front of the stadium, and after spending a few minutes with Myers, it was clear he was a man of his word - and unlike his character, he was a man who could speak more than one. The man behind the character makes The Animal all the more interesting. Myers, who is dyslexic, has a bachelor's degree from Michigan State and a master's degree from Central Michigan. During his wrestling career - which was part-time until 1986 - Myers was a successful high school football and wrestling coach who is a member of both the Michigan High School Coaches Hall of Fame and the Michigan Football Coaches Hall of Fame. And he is a big Tigers fan. "I'm also a Lions fan, too," Myers said. "You think that's easy?" He can remember players like Pat Mullin, a Detroit outfielder from the late 1940s and early 1950s, and can recite the names of the 1968 Tigers championship lineup. "I won Game 4 for the Tigers in the 1984 World Series against the Padres," Myers said. "I was doing a show at Cobo Hall in Detroit and had a couple of cases of beer with me. One of the wrestlers was a good friend of [Padres manager] Dick Williams. He said, 'I have the team upstairs in the VIP room, so take them up to them.' Then I took the manager, the pitching coach and a couple of the players out after the show in Greektown and showed them a great time. We didn't get in until about 4 in the morning. So I take full credit for that Game 4 loss by the Padres." The Tigers won that game 4-2 and the series in five games. He is 70 years old and not long ago was diagnosed with diabetes. But he appears to be in pretty good shape with hands still big and strong enough to tear apart a turnbuckle or two. He took his massive hand and shook Acta's. Acta told Myers as he entered the clubhouse, "Don't scare any of my players." They were hardly scared, though. Dmitri Young's eyes lit up when he saw George "The Animal" Steele. "I used to watch you all the time," Young said. "You are one of the all-time greats. ... I used to love watching you eat those turnbuckles, and your tongue would be all green How did you get it that way, sucking on green LifeSavers?" Answered Myers: "It was by accident. I had a few drinks one time and threw a couple of Clorets [gum] in my mouth and went on live TV with a green tongue, and everyone went crazy about it. I had the best breath in wrestling." Lo Duca, Nick Johnson and Johnny Estrada all gathered around Myers to tell him how they all grew up watching him wrestle. Lo Duca asked Myers how his turnbuckle-eating gimmick started. "Years ago we did studio wrestling, and there were about 150 to 200 people in the studio," Myers said. "We used to give out gifts to get people to come to the studio. One time they gave out these little couch pillows. So one fan threw a pillow at me. I have a pillow in the ring now, and there are about 200 other people there with pillows. So if I throw it back, I'm going to get bombed with pillows. So I started tearing it apart with my teeth. Later the guys in the locker room thought it was a good thing going, and Tony Pugliese, Bruno Sammartino's cousin, said, 'Maybe you could eat the turnbuckle, ha, ha, ha.' "About two weeks later I am wrestling Chief Jay Strongbow, and the match is going nowhere," Myers said. "So I quit wrestling and started eating the turnbuckle." Later we went up in the stands to watch his Tigers win 4-3. These days Myers, who is devoutly religious, does a lot of charity work. He has his own Web site, www.georgetheanimalsteele.com, and makes public appearances, including at minor league games around the country with other former wrestlers like Sgt. Slaughter. And baseball nearly changed his life. He played in high school and had said there were two teams that had shown some interest in him - the St. Louis Browns, and, of course, the Washington Senators. "Two teams that are both defunct," he said. "Maybe I could have saved them. But that could have been the kiss of death, too." Jim Myers, of course, had a greater calling than saving the Washington Senators. He was "The Animal.”