How the MLB Network captured the joy of Cubs fans during the 2016 World Series

Behind the scenes, Interviews
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The Chicago Cubs are one of the most storied franchises in Major League Baseball. But before 2016, the team hadn’t won a championship in 108 years. The 2016 World Series marked a momentous and unforgettable event in the hearts and minds of sports fans everywhere, and needed its own story.

Joy in Wrigleyville” is a MLB Network special documentary that showcases the Cubs fandom, an exploration of the cheers and tears of a piece of baseball history. For many fans, they still couldn’t believe that their favorite team won, so the MLB Network created an hour-long special that fans could watch over and over and feel that joy again and again.

Storybench spoke to Jed Tuminaro, a producer on the project, to learn more about the making of this MLB special.

What inspired you to want to focus the story on the fans rather than the team?

When the Cubs were reaching the World Series, we wanted to showcase how much the fans were a part of the story, really trying to showcase the spectrum of the Cubs fandom and what this World Series meant to them. Most sports documentaries focus on the players, but in the case of the Cubs, the fans are just as important as the team.

How did you pick these subjects?

As soon as we found out the Cubs were in the World Series, we immediately started doing research. We reached out to the team to get in contact with season ticket holders. During the games, we would have a crew walk into the fire station or the Felician Sisters Convent to just chat with the people about the game and their favorite team.

A lot of the stories are about death and family. How did you get these characters to open up?

We had a lot of contact with them beforehand, but they really opened up as soon as we sat down with them and had real conversations. A lot of it came easily to them because their love for the Cubs is so strong and something they wanted to share. For one of the fans, Wayne Williams, we traveled to his father’s grave in North Carolina for Game 7. He made a promise with his father that they would be together when the Cubs won the World Series. Williams was so into the game and that moment with his father that he ignored our camera and audio guy. He, and the others, were happy to be given the opportunity to talk about their favorite team and what it means to them and their family.

Did the MLB Network follow up with the characters following the release of the documentary? How did those characters respond?

The documentary itself had a positive response among Cubs fans and the subjects especially because the Cubs won. The subjects were thrilled and having that story filmed and cemented into Cubs history made this World Series more special. The fact that they could be a part of something bigger than them.

Obviously, it wasn’t a sure thing that the Cubs were going to win the World Series, so what was the game plan, if the Cubs lost?

When the Cubs were down in the series three to one, we were nervous and prepared for the worst, but the documentary was still going to be about the fanbase. We pitched this idea because Cubs fans were known as the ‘Lovable Losers’ because fans have been waiting 10, 30, 60 years for this opportunity, and that’s how the story would have taken shape if the Cubs had lost. Luckily, that didn’t happen and we were able to bask in the joy with the fans.

What are some techniques for creating a compelling sports documentary?

We just did this thing on the 1988 Dodgers, which is a famous story and Kurt Gibson had one of the biggest home runs, but there have been so many things done on that, but what made that special was all these years later, and still hearing stories, like, ‘I didn’t know that,’ or, ‘Wow! That’s the first time I ever heard him say that,’ or discovering something new. So, I think the key going into it, is trying to find something different, which is hard these days because so much has been done and trying to capture some emotion. Trying to tell the story through a different lens rather than providing information. Finding the emotion and what it means to the subjects.

Most documentaries have a narrator. How was the narration for this different?

When we do our narrations, a lot of the time we use celebrity narrators, and they’ll just read the lines, and they do a nice job. But when we did this one with John Cusack, he stopped a third of the way through, and you could tell he was invested in the script. He was moved by the project. He stopped a couple of times and would say, ‘Wow, that’s really important, let me say it again so I can get it right.’ That’s when you know you’re hitting people from all different walks.

How do you feel about having been on the team that created a heartfelt documentary loved by many Cubs fans?

I grew up in Chicago, but I’m not a Cubs fan, and we made this project simply as Major League Baseball producers, but it will always be special to us because it’s a personal documentary. When you see what it means to the people that are in it, the people that are Cubs fans, it’s different. Most documentaries you see are filled with athletes and coaches, they’re not filled with everyday regular people that are like me, like my mom, and like my grandparents. Even though I don’t have a connection to the people, or the team, or the city, it still feels very personal on a different level because we know there is joy, not to sound cheesy, but it brought people happiness, and that meant something.

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