BELMAR, N.J. (AP) - He signed autographs, sweet-talked star-struck women and even scored free food and drinks at bars and restaurants by claiming he was New York Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain.
But in reality, he was 30-year-old Ryan Ward, a Toms River man who looks a lot like the Yankees star and claims he was just having fun.
Prosecutors weren’t amused and had tried to put him in jail. But under the terms of a plea deal, Ward pleaded guilty Wednesday to reduced charges of disorderly conduct, was fined $2,518 and was placed on two years’ probation.
"I had fun with it, and did a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have done,’’ he said outside the courtroom. " It got out of hand. I wasn’t opening credit cards. This was just having fun with it.’’
Virtually everyone who encounters Ward acknowledges he is the spitting image of Chamberlain, the Yankees pitcher whose high-octane fastball and fist-pumping strikeout celebrations made him an instant sensation when the former Nebraska All-American joined the team in 2007.
"It’s apparent that he could be the twin brother of Joba Chamberlain,’’ said Belmar municipal prosecutor Stephen Schueler. "He bears an uncanny physical likeness to him.’’
"People were just star-struck, thinking I was him,’’ Ward said. "It was easy to become him. It was a switch I could turn on and off, and I did often.
"People like to be in the presence of celebrity,’’ said Ward, who said he was a "pretty good’’ pitcher as a teenager. "I always wore a Yankee hat, and I ran with it.’’
Patrons at bars and restaurants would send over free drinks and food to his table. He signed over 100 autographs, pretending to be Chamberlain.
Women were only too happy to spend time with him, thinking they were going home with a New York Yankee.
"There were many,’’ Ward said.
What first got him in legal trouble was an Aug. 1 encounter at a bagel shop in which Ward asked employees "Do you know who I am?’’ and pointed to a photo of Chamberlain in a newspaper. They gave him free bagels and a bottle of water.“
"He was selling autographs for free beer and money at a bar here on a night Joba Chamberlain was pitching and the game was on TV," said one local bar owner.
Other impersonations followed. Eventually, at least a few watering holes got wise and banned Ward from the premises. Then in October, he was arrested again, this time for yelling and carrying on while sitting on a bench outside a bar while intoxicated.
Two days later, Ward said, he checked himself into an alcohol-treatment facility. He said he recently celebrated 100 days of sobriety.
As part of his probation, Ward must stay out of all the restaurants and bars in Belmar, and complete his alcohol treatment. He currently lives in a halfway house.
First off, if there has ever been an uncanny resemblance, this is it. I honestly don't think I have ever seen an instance when someone looks this identical to a celebrity. Sure, there are Las Vegas impersonators that undergo surgery, hours of make-up, and years of practice to nail down famous people such as Elvis and Madonna, but that takes a lot of work. For Ryan Ward, all that was required from him was to pound down a twelve pack and stumble down to the closest bar or restaurant for free food, free drinks, and all the women you can handle. In fact, Ward claims to have taken home as many as 100 women using his alias. He even goes as far to say, "I got slapped a few times and yelled at, too, but I'd say there were about 20 or 30 of them who had no idea who I really was."
If only Ward could have remained somewhat sober during his crime spree, then just imagine how far he could have taken his God-given talent. Signing autographs for money the night Joba is pitching and then passing out on a park bench? Give me a break. If there is one thing Ryan Ward isn't, it's a smart criminal. Something tells me that after he has had some time reflecting on this whole situation while he is sober and on probation, he will be back for a more lucrative and scandalous crime spree.