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Patrick Reusse

Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968.

Reusse: Bobby (the Brain) Heenan was wrestling's wonderful weasel

The Crusher bought himself a Jack in the Box windup toy and brought it with him for TV interviews promoting upcoming AWA wrestling cards. He would sing “Pop Goes the Weasel’’ until it popped out of the box, and then say that was Bobby Heenan, the evil manager for the Heenan Family in the mid-‘70s.

The crowds for the TV matches would bring posters defaming Heenan as “Bobby the Weasel,’’ rather than his preferred “Bobby the Brain,’’ and he would demean those poster-waving fans in return.

“Bobby would be sure to say in his interviews, ‘And I don’t want to see any of those posters in the arena on Saturday night,’ ‘’ said George Schire, the premier historian of the AWA’s wonderful history. “Of course, the man selling the posters and making the money from them was Bobby.’’

The heroes and the villains of the AWA’s golden age continue to depart this vale of tears, and Heenan became the latest on Sunday, passing away in Florida at age 73 after a long and gruesome battle with throat and mouth cancer.

He was a kid in Indianapolis, a high school dropout because of a need to support his mother. One job was mowing lawns in the neighborhood, including for Bill Afflis, a former pro football player but better known as “Dick the Bruiser’’ of wrestling fame.

Dick the Bruiser was the promoter in Indianapolis, and he started taking Heenan to the matches. Bobby (real name Raymond) started off carrying the wrestlers’ jackets back to the dressing room, after they were introduced.

He was always quick of wit, a prankster in real life and around the ring, and used that to become one of the sport’s most notorious villains, as the condescending, rules-breaking manager – a wrestling weasel in the truest sense.

After he was done as manager, he set a new standard as the match analyst for what’s now the WWE, always seeming to spot a way in which the bad guy was noble and the hero was a cheat.

Jim Brunzell and his partner, Greg Gagne, spent the most-glorious wrestling days as the force for good taking on the evil partnerships of the Heenan Family. And on Sunday, Brunzell was among those saddened by the loss of a dear friend.

Brunzell described Heenan as a “self-taught genius,’’ and in an e-mail, called Bobby the “driving force for the success of AWA and WWF [now WWE] promotions. He managed the cream of the crop of wrestling talent – Bockwinkel, Stevens, Duncum, Lanza, Andre the Giant, Curt Hennig, Ricky Rude, Haku … ‘’

Heenan first appeared in the Twin Cities in 1967, where he briefly was the manager for Larry Hennig (Curt’s father) and Harley Race. He left for 18 months or so, then came back in 1969 as the manager for Black Jack Lanza.

His most-famous tag team was Nick Bockwinkel and Ray (The Crippler) Stevens. As they traveled the circuit, if Nick or The Crippler was not available, Heenan would get in the ring.

“Bobby was a good athlete – flipping over the ropes, he could do it all,’’ Schire said. “And whether it was as the manager or as a wrestler, he could get the crowd going as well as anyone.’’

The story angle entering the ‘80s became that Greg Gagne had become so upset with Heenan’s constant interference in tag team matches that he insisted on getting him in the ring for a solo match.

“I had gone to [promoter] Wally Karbo and said, ‘We have to get a weasel suit,’ ‘’ Gagne said. “Wally said, ‘A weasel suit?’ I said, ‘Yeah, a tail, paws, ears,’ and Wally found someone to make the suit for him.’ ‘’

And that became the promotion for Aug. 17, 1980, in the St. Paul Civic Center: The card was headlined by The Crusher vs. Jerry Blackwell in a ‘’Lights Out’’ match, with Gagne vs. Heenan in a special main event. And it read right there on the official lineup of matches, “Loser Must Wear Weasel Suit.’’

My late, great friend Dark Star, a Twins devotee, always claimed that those victorious Game 7s in the 1987 and 1991 World Series were tied for second as the greatest sports events that he had witnessed.

Number one? “The Weasel Suit match in St. Paul,’’ the Dark Man would say.

“That was about as wound up as any wrestling crowd I’ve seen in Minnesota,’’ Gagne said. “When I pinned him, Wally brought out the weasel suit, and the whole crowd was chanting ‘Weasel, Weasel,’ and then Heenan wouldn’t put it on, of course.’’

So, Greg did what the Gagnes always did to put away a reluctant opponent: He put the sleeper hold on Heenan, and splat went Bobby the Brain, out in the middle of the ring.

Gagne and the referee tugged and pulled – which looked more like a pink rabbit suit than a weasel – and finally had the suit on Heenan. Then, Greg slapped him awake, and Heenan stumbled to his feet, and saw that his hands were paws, and he had a tail, and his staggering across the ring, taking futile swings, was wrestling pantomime at its best.

“Stephanie McMahon [WWE executive] called me last night, and said she had just got done watching the weasel suit match,’’ Gagne said. “She told me it was one of the greatest wrestling moments of all-time.’’

The weasel suit series also was played out that month on AWA cards in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Peoria, Ill. Years later, the match was reprised in Madison Square Garden for the WWF, with the Ultimate Warrior as Heenan’s foil.

“They went nuts for it in New York, just as the fans did in St. Paul,’’ said Mean Gene Okerlund, the legendary TV interviewer for wrestling.

Heenan had to be in your top five for interviews, I said to Mean Gene on Monday. “Top three at least, and I’m not sure who was better,’’ Okerlund said. “You always had to be careful with him. He was always up to something.

“Early on, Marty [O’Neill] was doing an interview with Heenan and Bobby came out with this big portfolio,’’ Okerlund said. “He said, ‘Marty, this is my plan for Nick Bockwinkel to defeat Verne Gagne and win the title.’ And he opened it and held it in front of Marty, and inside the portfolio was a Playboy centerfold.

“Marty was wearing those sunglasses, of course, and he paused briefly, and said, ‘That’s a very interesting plan, Bobby.’ ‘’

Reusse: Twins headed off potential for disaster with Sunday's rally

Kyle Gibson had five strong starts in a row and now he had one on Sunday that the Twins needed more than any other. The Twins were completing a homestand and then heading off on a 10-game road trip to New York (3), Detroit (4) and Cleveland (3).

The Tigers’ presence in the middle of the Eastern journey might seem comforting on the surface, but there is no such thing as a layup at this point in a baseball season.

Gene Mauch used to call a short losing streak a “snag,’’ and another loss on Sunday had the potential to turn a snag into a season-killing slump for the Twins.

One of the Twins veterans was saying recently that he was amazed by the pressure-free attitude he senses from the younger core of players, as the team competes for the last spot in the American League postseason.

The homestand started with 16 runs on Tuesday, and then walkoff home runs by Eddie Rosario on Wednesday and Byron Buxton on Thursday. The lead over the L.A. Angels for the second wild card had increased to three games.

What was hidden in those walkoffs was minimal hitting through nine innings. Then came a pair of losses to Toronto on Friday and Saturday, and again the bats were largely quiet.

The Angels had won twice vs. Texas, .the lead was down to one, and even those naïve young guys might have felt it if this team had gone limping off to New York with three straight losses and the wild-card lead down the drain.

Yup, the Twins needed another solid game from Gibson, and then he went out and threw 38 pitches and gave up four runs in the first. The first of those runs came on a mammoth home run by Josh Donaldson – a shot into the third deck that was estimated by the Twins at 476 feet, the third longest in Target Field history.

The outcome was so certain when Donaldson cranked the baseball that left fielder Rosario – rather that moving toward the fence – bent over and tied a shoe lace.

“Man, Donaldson hits a baseball so hard,’’ reliever Glen Perkins said. “The exit velocity was 113 [miles per hour]. It’s incredible to hit a baseball that hard at that angle.’’

That nuclear baseball shook up Gibson – as it would have most any pitcher. He walked four before the inning was over. The four walks equaled Gibson’s total in his previous six starts.

When the four-run first was over, half of the crowd (Blue Jays fans from Manitoba) cheered, and half of the crowd (Twins fans) gave a catcall to Gibson.

The Twins went peacefully in the first, and then Donaldson homered again, into lower left field. The estimate was 370 feet. Not often you get to see someone hit a ball 106 feet fewer than in his previous at-bat, and still have it be a home run.

Gibson had faced 11 batters, it was 5-0, and while most Minnesotans watching television on Sunday were whining about the refs robbing the Vikings, there had to be few tuned into the Twins and saying, “The real Gibby is back; I knew we couldn’t trust him.’’

And then something strange happened – although maybe it wasn’t, since Gibson’s most-recent starts in Target Field resulted in a 17-0 victory on Sept. 2, and a 16-0 victory on Sept. 12.

Joe Biagini was the Blue Jays starter. He was 3-10 with a 5.07 ERA, and he demonstrated the legitimacy of those numbers in the bottom of the second:

Rosario led off with his 25th home run. Buxton followed with his 16th home run. Before the half-inning was over, Rosario had added a single, Buxton had added an RBI double, the Blue Jays had followed Biagini with two more pitchers, and the Twins had seven runs.

The Twins added six more runs in the fifth, and this included a grand slam by Joe Mauer – a very long shot toward the plaza in right field. It was Mauer’s fourth career grand slam, and his first in Minnesota … none previously in his eight seasons in Target Field, nor in his six at the Metrodome.

We need an asterisk for that Minnesota part. He must have hit a couple playing for Cretin-Derham Hall …. right, Joe?

“Yeah, I probably bounced one (a grand slam ball) off The Nook,’’ Mauer said, referring to the famed hamburger joint across the street from Cretin’s ballyard.

Gibson allowed no hits and one walk after Donaldson’s second home run. He finished with 13 straight outs and a total of 96 pitches in six innings. Included was a Donaldson strikeout when the Jays slugger sent his bat flying as he waved at a 3-2 slider.

“Mollie asked me if I wanted to keep the baseball after getting out Donaldson,’’ said Gibson, smiling slightly. “I knew there was no chance to find the first two.’’

Manager Paul Molitor also said Gibson’s comeback to work six innings after the terrible beginning was as impressive as any of the five previous strong starts.

“It was one of the bigger wins we’ve had in the last couple of weeks,’’ Molitor said. “Gibby hung in there, waiting for double-digit run support.’’

The final was 13-7 for the Twins. They would be leaving for New York and other points East still in the lead for the second wild card ... now two games after Texas beat the Angels.

The Twins are now 78-71, and none of those 78 has been more vital than coming back from the 5-0 hole on Sunday. You can’t afford to let a snag turn into a slump with two weeks left in the schedule.