Ferrell, Minors Make A Great Combo




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It is a tribute both to the culture of minor league baseball and the self-effacing genius of Will Ferrell that a character like Billy Ray "Rojo" Johnson could become such a phenomenon.

Ferrell and the Round Rock Express (Pacific Coast) gave birth to Rojo last year, when Ferrell was coming to Texas to promote his charity golf event. They created not only the character but a full back story, and even arranged for him to pitch in game against the Nashville Sounds.

Johnson was touted as a fireballing righthanded phenom who was born in the U.S. but raised in Venezuela. He had been serving time in a central Texas prison for running a smuggling ring that imported rare and illegal species of reptiles into the U.S., and upon his release was assigned to The Dell Diamond.

Of course, he wasn't really pitching in live game action, but the simulation was carried out so effectively that it looked quite plausible. That's where the spirit of the minor leagues comes in. You can't imagine such a thing happening in the major leagues, and that's probably proper, but it's also why the minors can be more fun sometimes.

The genius of Ferrell—who, if you somehow don't know, is a comedic actor of some note, with credits ranging from "Saturday Night Live" to "Anchorman"—comes in his commitment to the character. Ferrell is a noted sports fan, and he has portrayed athletes before, including NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby in the movie "Talladega Nights," and basketball player Jackie Moon in the movie "Semi-Pro."

He threw himself completely into the mustachioed Rojo character, running out from the bullpen to start the sixth inning of the game against the Sounds. He wore several over-the-top gold chains and carried a plastic grocery bag full of beer and took a few warm-up tosses before facing his first batter.

The Sounds batter, introduced as Randy Ennis, was actually J.J. Gottsch, a longtime Round Rock front office member who is now executive vice president of Ryan-Sanders Baseball, which owns the Express and Corpus Christi Hooks. Ferrell threw one pitch behind his head, and the umpire ejected him, and Gottsch then charged the mound. Ferrell sprayed him with beer, and a chase through the outfield ensued, with the two finally running out through the outfield fence and into history. You can relive it all with a simple YouTube search, and I would certainly encourage you to do so.

"Mentally, I feel like I have the strength of 10 men after that," Ferrell said in a press conference after his appearance.

For A Great Cause

Ferrell is returning to host the second annual Will Powered Golf Classic on May 6, but he won't reprise his Rojo appearance. A release from the Express said the teams asked him to pitch this season but he declined, citing the team's affiliation change.

"Rojo doesn't play for an American League team," Johnson said in a release. "I don't just pitch, I also hit. When the Express changed their affiliation from the Astros to the Rangers, I decided to hang up the cleats. I'm a National League guy."

Express CEO Reid Ryan said he thought Johnson may be scared to make a return.

"To be honest, I think it is a cop-out," Ryan said. "I think he is scared. Coming into last year all I heard about was his arm, and frankly, it did not impress me. We have new uniforms and a talent-laden team and he is afraid to take the mound, period."

Joking aside, Ferrell's appearances have done wonders for Cancer for College, a charity started in 1993 by Craig Pollard, a cancer survivor and one of Ferrell's fraternity brothers at Southern California. The organization raises money to provide college scholarships to cancer survivors. Most of the fundraising work has been done in California, but a member of the organization lives in Austin and is a friend of Ryan's and helped start a charity event in Texas as well.

As he has throughout the organization's history, Ferrell was willing to take the lead in promoting the event. "I really look forward to these Cancer for College events," he said. "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."