In 1971, Mike Vail and Randy Poffo were anonymous teenagers at the entry level of the St. Louis Cardinals farm system, eagerly trying to navigate the murky depths of professional baseball. Both would go on to garner national attention for their athletic feats. However, only one of them made their calling on the diamond. At the time for Vail, it wasn’t immediately clear that they would each experience success in different arenas.
“We were both real young, 18-19 years old,” Vail said during a recent phone interview in New York. “Randy, strictly from a baseball standpoint, I thought he was a pretty darn good little catcher.”
The Randy that Vail praises for being a quality receiver is better known to sports fans as WWE Hall of Famer, “Macho Man” Randy Savage. During their summer as teammates, the younger Poffo outpaced Vail in both batting average and home runs. His later turn to a wrestling career caught Vail by surprise.
“We were roommates when we first came in with the Cardinals,” he said. “We kinda grew up together. It was interesting that he became the wrestler he was. It was kind of funny to see him become a wrestler; I thought he would continue on in baseball, but I guess he decided to go another way.”
As they pursued separate paths, the two lost contact, with Vail loosely following Poffo’s wrestling exploits from afar. A conversation with a teammate about the recent passing of former Tidewater Tides general manager Dave Rosenfield reminded him of a missed connection with Poffo, who died in 2011.
“It’s like so many other things in life,” he said. “You go to places and you do things … I was just having breakfast with Buzz Capra. We just lost a person who was close to us and a lot of people in baseball, our AAA general manager for many years, [Dave] Rosenfield. That came as a real shock to me and I wanted to go meet him and I didn’t have a chance to do it. It’s kind of the same thing with Randy. It was a shame.”
Vail made his own headlines during his 1975 debut campaign with the New York Mets, setting both a team and National League rookie record with a 23-game hitting streak. His National League record stood for a dozen years until Benito Santiago eclipsed it in 1987. The streak was all part of a whirlwind that came shortly after debuting in the heart of the Big Apple.
“It was like a dream,” he said. “It was amazing to be in the majors to begin with coming from AAA, like a little kid’s dream, to come to New York City. I tell people this all the time, the first day that I reported, Willie Mays was in the clubhouse. As a boy in San Jose, California, we used to watch Willie Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Marichal … all of the greats back then that I grew up watching at 8-9 years old. Now I get to New York and Willie [Mays] was a coach for me. It was unbelievable. The tips he gave me were just amazing that he helped me with.”
Vail spent ten seasons in the major leagues, compiling a .279 lifetime average for seven franchises. Despite spending only three seasons in Flushing, his return to New York for a public autograph signing brought back strong ties to the city for the 65-year-old former outfielder.
“New York will always be my favorite town and team because I came up with the Mets,” he said. “I’ve got mixed emotions. I came here and was here for such a short time really in my estimation. I was planning to be on the team for quite a bit longer, but I had that bad injury in the off-season trying to get ready for the next season. It’s just mixed feelings; sometimes I guess I’m a little harder on myself than the fans are, wishing that [the injury] didn’t happen. I was hoping to be a bit better for New York than I was.”