Opie Otterstad works on his giant painting of the 2017 World Series championship celebration as Astros fans walk by before the start of Tuesday’s game at Minute Maid Park.
The first pitch at Minute Maid Park is less than an hour away and Opie Otterstad is standing on his scaffold contemplating a dark area in the upper right corner of his mega Astros World Series championship celebration painting.
Negative space, he calls it. Nothing happening. See? Above the right edges of the on-field celebration. Just to the left of the upper deck at Dodger Stadium.
He adds a dab of paint here or there as fans mill around on the main concourse. One man asks if he can be in the painting. Otterstad – or just plain Opie to most everyone at the ballpark — adds a white dot to the stadium crowd, points and smiles. The man grins.
Opie stares at that negative space for a minute or two more and has his answer.
He reaches for his cell phone, finds the perfect image of those trees behind the stadium for reference, then skims his palette knife across the black paint and starts to solve the problem.
In about 48 hours, the ambitious 8-feet-by-25-feet painting will be all but complete. The 48-year-old acclaimed sports artist needs to add those palms, finish a hand, touch up a few more places and, last but not least, complete George Springer’s face.
Springer’s wife has come by a few times over the last few months wondering when he’s going to finish his face. Opie is adamant. That will be the last thing he does.
Come next week, he will unroll the entire painting in his studio, stand there by himself and take one more critical look. And if something doesn’t feel right, he’ll just make a few more tweaks.
The painting is, on one level, a larger version of the one he released in the spring, but like every piece of art, there are subtle differences. And, of course, it has come from a slightly different part of his heart.
Added meaning for this job
He’s done the official World Series championship paintings for the past 15 years, but this one? It’s special for the gregarious Houstonian who grew up in the shadow of the Astrodome, hanging out with players’ children; a man who has been part of the Astros’ extended family since returning to the city after college in 1992.
Opie has been painting the celebration homage all season in one part of Minute Maid or the other, talking to fans as he works on the piece – the largest one he’s ever done. He even had to create and build a 10-foot tall mobile easel so he could roll and paint the canvas one seamless 8-by-5 panel at a time.
“Doing a mural like this is different than doing a piece in the studio because in the studio, it’s a completely different rhythm,” he said. “You paint sort of on a regular schedule, but when you add the element of fans and people talking to you, it’s a different experience altogether.”
The Astros will unveil the massive painting during one of the three games in the first homestand after the All-Star break July 27-29, which just happens to be against in-state and division rival Texas.
Opie grins. The Rangers.
It’s been fun. Quite a ride. An incredible honor.
“Coming to the ballpark every day and working in front of people it’s been a great experience because it’s my hometown,” he said. “I’ve seen people while doing this that I literally have not seen since middle school – over 30 years.
“I’ll have people come up and say ‘Hey, do you recognize me?’ I’ll say ‘No. But give me some context.’ Then they’ll say Clifton Middle School.”
Every few minutes a fan stops and says awesome, cool or amazing. They snap pictures of Opie working or chatting. Two longtime friends stop by to visit. A man walks up and asks to shake his hand. “Thank you for doing this,” he said. “It’s just incredible.”
Kate Upton stopped by one day when he was working on her husband Justin Verlander’s face. He asked if Verlander looked ok. No, Kate said. He looks perfect.
Tyler White’s dad, however, asked him to work a little bit more on his son. And Hall of Famer Craig Biggio? He just teases him about how long it’s taking him to finish.
“He says, ‘How long you going to milk this for?’ ” Opie said. “In sports, if they’re giving you (a hard time), then they like you.”
Opie grins. He’s really just part of the Astros family.
The ties that bind
His daily routine includes stopping by batting practice each day to watch a little and socialize a lot. The fans know him as the guy with the hat and plaid Pendleton jacket – and now as the guy painting the picture. He chats with everyone from players, coaches and front-office staff to the media, the fans and grandchildren like Jackson Ryan, son of Astros president Reid Ryan and grandson of Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
He’s on his third generation of Ryans now. He grew up just two blocks from the Astrodome and dated Debbie Menke, whose father Denis was the Astros’ third-base coach under Hal Lanier, for a couple of summers. They ran around with her brother, Jose Cruz Jr., and Nolan’s boys – Reese and Reid.
“Basically we ran around like a pack of wolves around the whole Astrodome, avoiding red coats (ushers) at all costs,” he said pausing to chuckle, “… and Reid’s dad. I was terrified of him when I was young. He could stop you in your tracks with one look. And it was usually directed at Reid.”
When he moved back to Houston in 1992, he reconnected with the team.
“I donated some pieces to the Orbiters, which pre-dated the Astros’ Wives Gala,” he said. “And the Biggios started buying work.”
It grew from there. He has painted other athletes like Tom Brady, Ben Crenshaw, Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson, to name just a few. And, in February, he painted individual 3-by-8 panels of the inaugural class of Houston Sports Hall of Fame — Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell and Hakeem Olajuwon – for the first annual Houston Sports Awards.
Now, this massive project.
“This sets the new precedent,” he said. “It’s the gateway painting for a new culture of winning in this town. I don’t know that I’d want to work on a painting this big again. I’m not a muralist. I like painting big, but this is on a completely different level.”
This one, because of the dimensions, moves some celebrating players a tad bit farther down the canvas, compresses the sky a bit and doesn’t have all the small signature things the original does. In the original, Opie painted himself into the atop the scoreboard and dotted other images across the sky. They’re missing in the big one, but he has tucked a few other images into the large piece.
“They’re little things that honestly mean something to me, but might not mean anything to anybody else,” he said. “There are little very subtle things kinda throughout the whole thing as I went along. And there are some things that I painted over, but I know they’re there, so it means something to me.”
He won’t discuss those now, saying they’re like little Easter eggs for people to find. But he did talk about one thing he added, then painted over – a tribute to his friend and the late Astros and Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, who died of a heart attack June 22, 2002.
“I haven’t been in a ballpark or watched baseball on June 22nd in 16 years,” he said. “It’s my no-baseball day. But I came to the park that day because I wanted to work on the piece. I painted up in the sky remember DK … I did paint over it, but, for me, it’s always in the painting.”
One year, he misspelled Detroit in a painting – Detoit. Another year, he did a piece for the Astros’ Wives’ Gala of Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell hitting a ball down the line.
“I painted home plate backwards, which is proof I make the paintings up,” he chuckled. “But of course it’s Jeff who comes up and bumps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey Opie, which way does home plate face?’ ”
He grimaced, went out to his car, got his paints and changed it on the spot.
Opie Otterstad called his latest World Series painting extra special because of his longtime ties to the Astros.
Going into the 2017 playoffs, Opie had three goals – to go to every game, home and away; to walk in the World Series parade and to get a championship ring. He went three-for-three and was even on the field at Dodger Stadium for the celebration.
Yes, he was living the dream. His team. His hometown.
His other two favorite World Championship celebration moments? When the Boston Red Sox snapped their curse in 2004 and the Chicago Cubs in 2016.
In addition to the Astros’ on-field celebration piece, he did an entire series of paintings which can be viewed at Off The Wall in The Galleria.
And, yes, he’s well-known around the major leagues.
“My relationship to baseball is different than with all other sports,” he said. “I kind of walk around with impunity which is not something I ever want to take for granted. I’m in this strange category. An artist. I’m not media. I’m not really a vendor.
“I’m not really anything. But there’s not a major league ballpark I can’t walk into.”
He has the athletes and players he paints sign something for him – the painting, a ball, a bat – to keep as a remembrance. The most interesting one? Former Astro Lance Berkman, who wrote the text of William Barret Travis’ final letter from The Alamo on a bat. And, yes, it takes up most of the bat.
Opie keeps an eye on the team shop TVs while he’s painting during games and listens to the crowd and announcers. But when Kyle Tucker was called up last week, Opie stopped painting and watched all of the outfielder’s at-bats. He also grabbed a game ball and had him sign it as they walked out together that night.
“It’s the kid’s first day,” he said. “You give him No. 3 and hopefully he’ll be a mainstay around this team for a long time and around the city … I usually don’t like (getting autographs), but for me, it seemed special for some reason.”
After the painting is unveiled, plans call for its permanent home to be near Union Station – between the club and suite level on the third base side – where it can be seen, but also protected from the sun and from being touched.
Wonderful. Amazing. So talented. He has heard those heartfelt compliments night after night. But the one that mean the most?
He came in early one day to move the painting dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and Vans. He had bags slung over his shoulders and was carrying his tools when former Astros announcer Bill Brown stopped him.
“He said, ‘Opie, you’re a grinder.’ And that meant more to me than anything I’ve heard so far because it appreciated the fact, the painting part aside, I put a lot of physical effort into it as well . . . So for him to say that recognized that effort.”
As the fans mill past the painting, a few recognize Opie because of his jacket and fedora, then they put two and two together. He’s also the artist who created the piece.
Which brings us to that signature look. He started wearing his dad’s Pendleton jacket when “borrowed’ it at age 16 and never gave it back. He estimates he owns about three dozen of the vintage jackets – procured from antique stores and EBay – and the fedoras came from his pseudo grandfather who wore one to church. He now has about 50 hats.
“I used to get a different one each year, but I’ve sorta been in a rut. The last few years, I’ve bought the same hat over and over again,” he said.
But his career? There’s never a dull moment. If he’s not painting, he’s building an easel or flying out to present a painting.
“That’s one of the things I like about my job. I never know what it’s going to be. I sort of fly by the seat of my pants,” he said pausing. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Melanie Hauser, a former sportswriter for the Houston Post, writes a weekly column sponsored by the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.