05/07/10 12:23 PM ET
Ferrell pitches, entertains in Round Rock
Actor puts on an in-game show for fans at Triple-A game
By Mark Newman and Brian McTaggart / MLB.com
The funniest athlete in the world has made it into baseball.
Now the only question is whether he will make it to The Show.
Will the Astros call up Rojo Johnson? Will the mustache stay on?
Would a bag of beer cans be allowed instead of a resin bag on a Major League Baseball pitcher's mound? What does it mean to Venezuela's baseball legacy? Could this become yet another sports character in an upcoming Will Ferrell movie?
All of that remains to be seen now that Ferrell has done it again, this time signing a "contract" to pitch Thursday night for the Astros' Triple-A Round Rock Express affiliate and being ejected after firing his only pitch behind the Nashville Sounds batter.
"Mentally, I feel like I have the strength of 10 men, after that," Ferrell/Johnson, who ripped off his mustache during the on-field chase, told reporters in a postgame press conference.
"Nashville showed a lot of stuff tonight," he added. "They've got a lot of moxie."
Gotta love Minor League Baseball.
Ferrell, who has played comic sports figures in the movies "Talladega Nights," "Blades of Glory" and "Semi-Pro," was in the Round Rock area to promote The Will Powered Golf Classic on Friday at Cimmaron Hills Country Club, benefiting College for Cancer, an organization that provides scholarships to cancer survivors.
"This opportunity just came out of nowhere," Ferrell said later Friday afternoon. "We were coming to town to promote our first Texas fundraiser when (Express CEO) Reid Ryan from the Express reached out to us with this great idea for promoting the event, and 'Rojo' was born. The Ryan family and the entire staff with the Express were just awesome. I had a blast out there, and I especially enjoyed the camaraderie of my new teammates. We will be houseboating together this weekend."
During the week, Ryan -- Nolan Ryan's son -- made the following announcement on the team's web site:
"The Round Rock Express have acquired Billy Ray "Rojo" Johnson. The right-handed pitcher will be in uniform for Thursday's 7:05 p.m. CDT game against the Nashville Sounds.
"Johnson, who was born in East Texas but was raised in Venezuela, recently had his prison sentence commuted. He served time for running a smuggling ring that imported rare and illegal species of reptiles into the United States from South America during the mid-to-late 1990s. Thursday night's game marks Johnson's first in American professional baseball after a storied career in the Venezuelan leagues."
In the sixth inning, Ferrell walked onto the field dressed as "Rojo." He wore No. 99 and sported a panoply of heavy gold chains and a thick mustache.
If you watch the video on MLB.com, you can see what happened after Rojo threw his pitch far behind the batter. There was an argument with the home-plate umpire, an ejection, and then Ferrell's character sprayed beer on the batter, pulling it from the bag of cans he had brought to the mound. There was a chase scene around the outfield and lots of laughs.
The umpire was the same Pacific Coast League umpire who called the game. The Nashville batter with the No. 4 jersey, however was an "extra." Larry Little, director of communications for the Express, said the person playing the part of Sounds batter "Randy Ennis" was actually J.J. Gottsch, who was Creighton's third baseman for the Blue Jays early 1990s CWS appearance. Gottsch is now baseball executive vice president for Ryan Sanders, parent company of the Express.
"We've never done anything like this before," Reid Ryan said. "It was really a stretch for us, and we thought long and hard about it, but to have the opportunity to have one of Hollywood's biggest stars ...
"Will Ferrell is the king of comedy right now, and it's great to have him come to a facility like ours and do something special and interact with the players and fans to make a memory for the people, as well as promote a great cause."
The idea to create the character was the brainchild of Ferrell's handlers and Little and Clint Musslewhite of the Round Rock staff. The Express clued the Astros into its plans and put out a press release earlier in the week saying it had signed Johnson, sparking an outcry from some fans.
"Some people got it right away because they knew Will Ferrell was going to be there Thursday night," Ryan said. "Other people called and said they couldn't believe we signed this guy because we're a family business."
Sounds general manager George King said they enjoyed being part of it from the start and called it "fun" for Minor League Baseball in general.
"Reid called me and said we're going to do this little thing on there, we've asked your team for a uniform top," King said. "That's all I knew. I just knew Will Ferrell was involved. That's about it.
"Minor League Baseball is about fun promotions. If that's what worked in their ballpark, then it's good for them, absolutely."
Round Rock enjoyed its biggest crowd of the year (10,149), which included more than 4,000 walk-up tickets sold. Ferrell watched the game in a suite for a few innings before spending a half-inning in the bullpen.
A check of the Round Rock roster shows there is no Rojo Johnson listed among pitchers for today's game. Alas, you would not have found him there on Thursday, either. Little said Ferrell was "not on the active roster" and said the Triple-A affiliate was "very careful to not link this to the Astros in any way since it was a total spoof."
In other words, sorry, doesn't look like Rojo Johnson will be a call-up anytime soon.
"We ran everything by our staff and coaches, the Nashville staff and coaches, the umpires, and the Nashville front office ahead of time," Little said. "Everyone was OK with it and on board."
Casey Daigle is one of the Round Rock pitchers, and he also happens to be married to softball legend Jennie Finch. On her Twitter account, Finch posted the following back-to-back tweets on Thursday night:
Casey is hanging in the bull pen with Will [Ferrell] tonite! Chaos! Will's about to get the call he's getting loose! Yes, seriously!
And he is taking the mound making his minor debut as Rojo Johnson! Dell Diamond is rockin'!
A fan named "rodreel" left this comment during the day on Thursday at the Express web site, after seeing the news story about Rojo's acquisition:
"I'm sorry but no matter how well this convict pitches he shouldn't be allowed at Dell Diamond. These convicts are a dime a dozen and you don't hear about them much because they are shunned by baseball. What will this guy do if he figures a bad call was made? How might his actions influence his team mates and the Round Rock tradition?"
Ferrell has being holding his golf tournament for 16 years in the fall in California and was convinced by some friends to hold one in Austin in the spring. There were seven beneficiaries this year, including two that are going to attend Texas universities.
"We came up with the idea we really wanted to so something with Will making appearances at the stadium and started kicking around the idea," Ryan said. "The whole thing about him wanting to have a name, and Will Ferrell was going to be revealed the night of the game. It was a great way to get the message out for this cause and get people excited."
Ferrell took the public address microphone in the middle of the seventh inning and sang "Take Me Out To the Ballgame." He also sat with radio announcers Mike Capps and Kelly Wunsch for a half-inning before leaving the ballpark.
Cancer for College put out a press release Friday afternoon, starting with this: "He came and went in a blink of an eye, but Billy Ray 'Rojo' Johnson's legacy will carry on far beyond the one pitch he delivered from the mound."
Cancer for College is a San Diego-based 501 (c) 3 charity formed in 1993 by two-time cancer survivor and double amputee, Craig Pollard. Pollard and Ferrell are longtime friends and fraternity brothers from their days at the University of Southern California. Since its inception, Ferrell has been a devoted supporter of the charity serving as host to numerous fundraising events and even lent his likeness to the wildly popular Will Ferrell Sunscreen products (available online at www.cancerforcollege.org) where 100% of the proceeds are returned to the charity.
"I really look forward to these Cancer for College events," said Ferrell. "It's such a pure charity. Meeting the scholarship recipients and hearing the stories of the cancer survivors is so inspiring. What they are able to accomplish while dealing with such a terrible disease makes me feel like such a slacker. These events are some of the highlights of my year and we are excited to be able to grow into the great state of Texas."
"We are so honored that Will takes time from his incredibly busy schedule to continually support our charity," said Pollard. "Will and his wife Viveca have been so generous with their time and resources through the years. That generosity has allowed us to help significantly more survivors than we could without their involvement. We are also grateful to our Austin-based committee who were the nuts and bolts behind this event."