On August 23rd, Jake Johnson’s dream turned into a nightmare.
A diehard Chicago Cubs fan, the New Girl and Jurassic World star was invited up to the broadcast booth at Wrigley Field – a first for a guy who’s made more than 200 trips to the venerable ballpark over the years – and had just spent an inning talking prospects (and screaming his way through a Kris Bryant home run) with the local radio and TV teams. Then came the singing.
Like most celebrity visitors, Johnson was asked to serenade the Friendly Confines faithful with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch, a tradition started by his idol: late, great Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray. This was a problem – Johnson describes his singing voice as “dogshit” – but, for the next 60-something seconds, he did his best, semi-shouting his way through the tune while relying on the fans in the stands to fill in the blanks.
“I just kind of yelled it,” he laughs. “I hated it.”
Still, he survived, and in the month since, things have improved dramatically for both the man and the team. On Friday night, the Cubs clinched their first postseason berth since 2008, just as Johnson was about to begin filming the fifth season of New Girl. As he prepares for playoff baseball (and a return to TV), Rolling Stone spoke with the actor about his lifelong obsession with the Cubbies, Joe Maddon’s unique managerial style and whether Fox will consider giving him some time off if his favorite team continues to roll all the way to the World Series.
You’re from Evanston, Illinois – so is your fandom regional or familial?
My father is a Cubs fan but he wasn’t around when I was growing up. My uncles were huge fans but they didn’t live with me. I lived with my mother and sports weren’t celebrated with her. We didn’t have cable but we did have WGN, so I think my appreciation started watching games with Harry Caray and Steve Stone as the broadcasters.
What was it about Harry and Steve that you loved?
My level of baseball play stopped when I was about 15, so I never really understood the difference between, like, a curveball and a slider. When I’d be watching Steve Stone he’d be like, “You gotta be looking curveball here” and then I’d start looking curve in a certain count. Stuff like that. So now when I watch a game I can understand what pitch is coming in what pitch count. I can be like, “This guy is gonna throw a heater upstairs right here,” and then Miguel Montero will set up high and that’s what it is. I kinda wish Stone was still there, I have so much left to learn [laughs].
Do you use that knowledge to impress the folks you’re watching games with?
I usually watch by myself, but my dad and I text each other all the time during the game. We’ll text what pitch is coming next. The other guy will seem so smart. I give that up to Stoney. On the flipside of that, you had Ron Santo on the radio and Harry on TV and they were just massive fans cheering all the time. It was impossible to not be into it. Baseball is a serious game, but it’s also baseball, you know? It’s a little goofy and slow moving. You don’t have to be in the best shape. It’s OK for Joe Maddon to bring a small zoo on the field before a game. Stuff like that and dudes like Harry and Santo – those are the characters of baseball. It’s beautiful.
Jake Arrieta just won his 21st game, and is awesome on Twitter. How great has his success been for Cubs fans?
He’s unbelievable. The fun thing about him is that he came in a trade from the Orioles and was an unknown. If you get a throw-in guy and he ends up being, like, a third or fourth starter, you’re like, “Holy cow that’s amazing.” Then this guy turns out to be the best pitcher in baseball. It just goes to show how friggin’ smart Theo and his guys are.
When Epstein and Jed Hoyer came on, did you think things would turn around this quickly?
When they first came on I thought we’d see positives, but I also think things started to turn with the Ricketts family buying the team. There’s no salary cap in baseball so it’s hard to compete with teams spending a ton of money unless you’ve got some crazy Moneyball theory. So with the Ricketts family bringing in Theo and his team I thought that was huge. I didn’t think it’d be this year and I don’t think we’ll win the World Series, but man, this team is so impressive. It’s a victory just getting to the playoffs with how many rookies and young guys we have. I don’t think there’s another team in the league that’s better than us.
Was there a moment when you realized that this team was special?
It was two things. It was a series against the Rockies at the beginning of the year, when Dexter Fowler hit a go-ahead bomb. Throughout the beginning of the year, before Schwarber came up and Addison Russell took over shortstop, we were good but you and had so many close and walk-off wins. I just knew this team was way more exciting than any Cubs team I could remember. The catalyst, besides Maddon, has been Miguel Montero and when he started that #wearegood shit on Twitter. Everyone is having fun with it, and when he started it at the beginning of the year I was like, “Yeah, we’re good – but it’s just funny for a player to be tweeting that.” Next thing you know, Arrieta is winning his 20th game and rocking a We Are Good T-shirt after the game. We’re better than the Cardinals and better than the Pirates. Shit! We are good!
So you wouldn’t say your seventh-inning stretch was a catalyst?
No. Mine was terrible. I hated it. My dream has always been to be in the booth and talk to the guys. I did the radio with Ron Coomer and Pat Hughes and that was amazing. I got to sit in the Ricketts’ seats in the front row. I walked on the field and took a tour of the back offices and everything. We saw, like, Harry’s personal entrance. I was able to bring my old man and my brother and some friends but I knew it all came with a price. When it comes to singing and dancing I’m garbage, so at some point I just had to take my medicine.
You didn’t prepare by chugging hot water and lemon for six innings?
God no. I got to do radio and get in the TV booth. Kris Bryant hit a home run while I was in there and I got to scream during the broadcast. I got to talk prospects on the air. It was amazing but then I had to transition into singing the song and I don’t really have the skillset to do that, so I just kind of yelled it. But the day was a massive win in terms of life experiences, besides my singing being very below average.
If the Cubs make a deep run in the postseason, will you go to games?
I don’t know. I start back working on New Girl in a few weeks so I’ll probably just happily watch them at home.
The show can work around Zooey Deschanel’s pregnancy but not a Cubs playoff run for Jake Johnson?
The show is called New Girl, not New Nick Miller, buddy.
Do you have friends you watch games with in L.A.?
I do, but really I just like to text with my dad during the games. There’s no bigger Cubs fan than him. He’s my guy. The games aren’t a communal event for me. I’m not going to have a big playoff party or a BBQ. I’ll just order some food and maybe get a nice bourbon, a six pack and enjoy the games myself. If my wife wants to watch, that’s awesome. If my kids want to watch, that’s awesome. If one friend wants to come over that’s great. I don’t want to have an event where people are talking during the 4th inning. I want to dissect a 10-pitch at-bat and really focus on the pitch counts. I don’t want to have to explain things to people or have them talking over me. I’m no teacher. If my kids want to learn something, that’s super cool. If it’s some adults? Get the fuck outta here. I’m no Steve Stone.