Recalling Ron (Opie) Howard's BP with the Expos - Updated
*This is an updated version of the story that originally ran on December 28.*
By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
It was hours before game time as the Montreal Expos got ready to take on the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine some 35 and a half years ago in 1982.
Writer and actor Jimmy Ritz of Happy Days TV fame was talking with Expos hitting coach Billy DeMars, his close friend. DeMars and Expos equipment manager John Silverman would occasionally stay or eat at Ritz's house in the L.A. area.
In the course of a conversation, one thing led to another and Ritz told DeMars that he was bringing actor and movie director Ron Howard to the game. Almost immediately, DeMars said he would arrange for a field pass at Dodger Stadium for Howard and Ritz.
As things moved forward, DeMars was then asked, "Any chance you could arrange for Ron to get in an Expos' uniform before and during the game tonight?''
So DeMars pondered the request and told Ritz he would run it by manager Jim Fanning. Gentleman Jim quickly agreed and DeMars arranged for Silverman to issue Howard a uniform.
"I had asked Ron if he was free to come to the game and he said, 'Oh, I would love to come to the game,' '' Ritz recalled.
"Ron's dream was to be on a bench during a major-league game,'' DeMars said in an interview. "Jimmy wrote a couple of episodes for Happy Days which Ron was an actor in, playing Richie Cunningham. I got introduced to Jimmy years earlier when I was a coach with the Phillies and we became good friends.''
In a photo that has been circulated on social media, Howard is seen in an Expos' uniform and hat, beaming at the camera in the presence of a number of Expos' players, including Dan Norman, Scott Sanderson and Jeff Reardon. One other photo is also in DeMars' possession: Howard and DeMars posing on top of the Expos' dugout. It was taken by Ritz.
When one of the photos was broached in a phone conversation with DeMars, he surprisingly said, "I'm looking at the photo right now.''
The photo is on DeMars' wall at his residence in Clearwater Beach, Fla. and it brings back great memories for him. Ritz lives in Oldsmar not far from where DeMars lives. The photo shows the Expos in what appear to be 'home' white uniforms but they are actually grey or light blue designed for 'road' games.
Howard spent eight seasons as Opie Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s. Happy Days was a television hit, beginning in 1974, but a year prior to its inauguration, director George Lucas of Star Wars fame had picked Howard to star in his 1973 feature film American Graffiti.
Howard was 28 at the time he donned the Expos' uniform and by then, he had stepped away from acting to concentrate on directing. And by the sounds of it, Howard actually looked like a ballplayer and hit like a ballplayer, not some guy up there flailing away hopelessly. He caught and threw like a normal ballplayer would.
"Ron dressed up in an Expos' uniform for batting practice,'' remembered Expos trainer Ron McClain. "He took BP, shagged balls in the outfield, took ground balls and so on. The plan was that he would be a batboy and he might have for one inning. I can't remember. He had a good stance and swing. He was a line-drive hitter. No power but he looked like he could do it in his younger days.''
All the pre-game rituals went without fanfare because there were few if any fans around and Howard had the time of his life. He was acting out a dream but when the game began, there was a commotion. Photographers covering the game got wind of Howard's presence. The end result was negative. It was one of the few times in baseball history that an umpire ejected a celebrity from a game.
"Photographers found out and started taking pictures. The whole situation got messed up. By the second or third inning, I had to tell Ron to get off the field. He was having an absolutely great time. There was a game to be played and the umpires didn't like the commotion. It ruined the night for me and Ron,'' DeMars said.
"When photographers realized it, they kept taking pictures,'' McClain said. "Soon, the umps noticed and realized something was going on in the dugout. I do know the umps ruined it by tossing Ron out of the dugout. They said it was causing a distraction to the game.
"They thought he would have to have a job in order to sit in the dugout. The umps didn't buy it. No visitors are allowed in the dugout so he had to leave. So he left. He went back to the clubhouse and got dressed. He loved the experience, though. It was a fun day for awhile. He enjoyed the on-field, pre-game experience, I know that. He was a good guy. He loved baseball,'' McClain said.
"Ron didn't make a big deal out of it, of having to leave. He was just happy. When the press got involved, Jim Fanning was thinking this may be getting out of hand, that it might get a bit hairy. To be very truthful, if the press hadn't caught on, Ron would have been there in the dugout the whole game,'' Ritz said. "It was the first time, to my knowledge, that Ron had been in a big-league uniform. At one time, Jim Fanning had Ron's name on the lineup card as an extra and then he scribbled it out. It was a fun day,''
As Sanderson said in an interview a few days ago, he remembered most of all the sheer joy in Howard's face.
"He had this huge excitement, a smile on his face that wouldn't leave,'' Sanderson said. "He had a grin on his face all day long. I remember him being so excited that he was talking a mile a minute. It was funny to watch. He was a bundle of nervous energy.
"He was just like a kid, he wanted to ask questions. He just wanted to talk. It makes you chuckle. We were pretty excited to have him join us. He was acting like a Little Leaguer. There was a game going on but it was nice to see someone take an interest in the game.''
One Facebook member, musician Terry Edmunds, posted that Howard would occasionally bring his kids Bryce, Jacelyn, Paige and Reed to games in Montreal over the years.
"Ron was a big baseball fan and him and his kids would drive up from N.Y. State a lot to watch the games,'' Edmunds wrote. "Seems Richie (Cunningham) got it, the cool vibe that was the Expos. He always wanted to hang out with the coolest.''
Online reports say Howard sold his 17,200 square foot, Victorian-themed mansion on the New York/Connecticut border for $27.5-million in 2014. The Howard property on Converse Lake had an address in Armonk, N.Y. but part of it fell in tony Greenwich, Conn.
As a map shows you, a trip to Montreal by the Howard clan would have been on a direct line on I-87 North for about six and a half hours. Howard was born in Oklahoma but moved to southern California with his family at age 4. He and his wife Cheryl bought the New York/Connecticut property, which included a sports barn, in 1985 to raise their family. When the kids were grown up, Howard and his wife moved the family back to California.
We contacted Howard's office to see if he might talk about his Expos' experience but his PR handlers said there was no way we could get an interview unless we got an agent or lawyer to intercede. We also wrote a postal letter to Howard's business address of Imagine Entertainment in Beverly Hills, Calif. but we never heard back. We also tweeted him a note.
Howard, 63, is still going strong these days as a director, movie producer and story teller. His latest project will be released in May, 2018. It's called Solo: A Star Wars Story.
"Ron Howard was an excellent person, just like you and I. A great kid,'' DeMars said.
"I'd been in the Phillies' dugout in uniform myself for 10 years,'' Ritz said. "I was with them when they won the World Series in 1980. I'd met Billy DeMars many years prior to that. Ron also got to be in a White Sox uniform in the 1980s on at least two occasions when Tony La Russa was the manager. Ron and I have a long history with various teams.
"Ron was a huge Dodgers' fan. Sandy Koufax was his favourite. Ron played organized ball. He had a pretty normal childhood even though he was acting. He played Little League and he played on our Happy Days softball team. Here's a funny story. One time when we were in Anaheim and shagging balls, we were with the White Sox before a game and a batter hit a shot to left field and Ron bumped into the wall and caught the ball and one of the players said, 'Opie, yes.' ''
How close are Howard and Ritz? Howard was best man at Ritz's wedding in 1982 around the time Howard suited up for the Expos.
McClain said it wasn't uncommon that celebrities would want to take batting practice with the Expos.
"We had several celebrities take BP over the years,'' McClain said. "I had New York Knicks trainer Mike Saunders help shag balls for extra hitting and then coach Joe Kerrigan would let him hit for about 20-30 swings. I remember Mike Fitzgerald hitting him fly balls off a fungo bat, taking him up against the wall at Shea Stadium. He said, 'I can't believe I am out here where Darryl Strawberry, Willie Mays and Duke Snider stood.' He was thrilled. He spent 30 years as the Knicks' trainer.''