- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2008

VIERA, Fla.

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 assurances 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.”

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