The act billed as “Tim ‘Wild Thang’ Lepard and Team Ghostriders” has become one of minor league baseball’s best-sellers, with fans filling ballparks to watch Lepard’s cowboy-clad capuchin ring-tailed monkeys riding on the backs of border collies, chasing after big-horned sheep.
For a sport that embraces the offbeat like no other, the cowboy monkey rodeo—which now dots three-dozen teams’ promotional schedules—seems like a natural fit.
“What I tell people is that if you can watch the cowboy monkey rodeo and not smile, you have no soul,” said Harrisburg Senators (Eastern) general manager Randy Whitaker, whose team has booked Lepard each of the past four seasons.
Lepard was already big on the rodeo circuit when Valenti, now the head of Blue Rocks marketing but then a lowly assistant, found him.
He passed on the video to then-marketing director Mark VanderHaar, who tracked down Lepard and persuaded the reluctant cowboy to try out his act in Delaware the following summer. But first VanderHaar needed to convince his boss that Lepard and his monkeys were ready for prime time.
“I actually lied to our GM, Chris Kemple, and said ‘Oh sure, he’s done a ton of games. It’ll be great,’ ” said VanderHaar, who is now an executive at a Wilmington radio station.
Valenti and VanderHaar’s instincts proved true. Lepard was a hit in his baseball debut on July 31, 2009. And he continues to be one for fans at ballparks across the country.
His show typically features four monkeys—dressed head to tail in cowboy garb—who ride miniature saddles on the backs of four border collies, darting between players in a few between-inning appearances during the game before rounding up a half-dozen sheep set loose in the outfield and guiding them into a makeshift pen during a roughly 20-minute postgame performance.
“It was probably the most unusual thing that I had ever seen,” Kemple said of the debut performance. “How I sort of convinced myself that it was such a great act was because I couldn’t describe it accurately. I would tell people, ‘You’ve got to see it to really understand what I’m talking about . . . ’ It’s entertaining and funny and cute and charming with the animals. And the bottom line is that it sold out.”
Lepard, 52, is a soft-spoken but hard-nosed veteran of the rodeo circuit—he broke in as a bull rider in 1977—who talks often of his lifelong adoration for monkeys. Growing up in Memphis, he pestered his father for years to buy him one and finally got his wish as a 12-year-old, when he received a monkey companion during his parents’ divorce.
“When I was growing up, I had a love for animals and always loved monkeys,” he said. “But I never expected it to be anything like this. This isn’t just a way of life; this is my life.”
Lepard says he trains his monkeys with an abundance of love—and Pop-Tarts. The inspiration for his act came nearly 30 years ago, when his pet monkey hopped on the back of his dog and went tearing around the house. He would give a treat to the monkey every time it tried to get down.
“He was just content to sit up there and eat a Pop-Tart,” Lepard said. “It was all done with care and love.”
Little did he know where it would lead. Lepard has begun filming a reality show for the A&E network, while selling out ballparks around the minors.
He has 36 minor league teams on his schedule this year, along with two NBA and NFL teams and a NASCAR race. He is even considering an NHL team’s offer. “They said they’ll roll out artificial turf on the ice and we’ll do it on the ice,” he said.
While most minor league promotions aim to enhance a fan’s experience at a game, the cowboy monkey rodeo is an attraction unto itself. His stop at Wilmington in 2011 attracted 7,514 fans—the second-largest crowd in Frawley Stadium history, trailing only the ballpark’s grand opening in 1993.
The rodeo also accounts for two of the largest crowds in Harrisburg’s history.
“It is just a hilarious spectacle and that is what people are here for,” Whitaker said. “They are looking for the experience, and this is the epitome of an experience-adder . . . It’s one of those things where the adults bring the kids and end up having more fun than the kids do.”