Just over 25 years ago, a man in a really nice camper put a song on the radio that launched a band called The Wonders. A memorable 2021 reunion of the That Thing You Do! cast at an Erie SeaWolves (Double-A Northeast) game is our 2021 Promotion of the Year in the annual Ballpark Digest awards.
Wonders Night at UPMC Park was a hit, celebrating the film while delighting fans and raising money for a great cause. It began as an April Fool’s Day tweet, amplified by some cast members, and then became a reality.
I Led You Here Sir For I Am Spartacus
The origins of this event can be boiled down to one fateful tweet.
The SeaWolves posted about a new jersey night on April 1, 2020, and they weren’t sure how fans were going to react.
The SeaWolves announce today that they will be changing their name to the Erie Wonders for a game during the 2021 season. The team’s short-term name change will honor Erie’s chart-topping native sons, The Wonders.
— Erie SeaWolves (@erie_seawolves) April 1, 2020
“The idea for a Wonders night had been brought up before but the 21st or 22nd anniversary just didn’t have the same ring to it. The idea grew legs when we were all at home during lockdown,” said Greg Coleman, president of the SeaWolves. “We thought this idea was something people would really like. We mocked up a version of the jersey and posted it. Then if we hadn’t read the room right, we could say it’s an April Fool’s joke.”
Not only was the response overwhelmingly positive from the fans, it also attracted the attention of people involved with That Thing You Do!.
“Tom Everett Scott saw it on Twitter and called me. We were like yeah. That’s a great idea,” said Johnathon Schaech, who played lead singer Jimmy in the movie. “I remember him going, they really want to do this, and I was like, they can do that?”
Schaech added that joining forces with a baseball team was a natural fit.
“Right after That Thing You Do!, Playtone, the fake record company from the movie, became a real production company and they bought a box at Dodgers Stadium. It’s right behind home plate about five rows up,” Schaech said. “I’ve been going to Dodgers games for 25 years. The Little League team I coach is named the Dodgers. My son is even named Camden for the Orioles. Plus, we all know Tom [Hanks] is famous for saying there’s no crying in baseball and all the guys love baseball movies like The Natural, The Rookie and Moneyball.”
You Guys Look Great In Jerseys. Have I Told You That?
Planning was key and came with several hurdles.
Perhaps the biggest one was securing the rights in order to even have an event.
“Even though the guys were behind it, we don’t own the intellectual property,” Coleman explained. “Over the years, distribution rights for the movie have gone through different people and different decision makers. Tom and Johnathon and Playtone really pushed the ball up the hill for us. Once Major League Baseball saw that we had a letter with those rights, everything moved quickly.”
One thing that everyone agreed on from the very beginning was a non-profit organization or charity should be involved.
“We wanted to do this for our community and fans of the movie but none of this would have moved forward if there wasn’t a greater motivation behind it and we’re always looking to make a difference,” Coleman said. “We asked Playtone if there was a certain cause that Tom Hanks supports and they said they were on board with whatever cause the actors would like to support.”
The group selected NoticeAbility, a nonprofit organization that helps dyslexic students. It’s a cause near and dear to their hearts, including Schaech, who’s on the board of directors.
“I saw a Ted Talk by the founder, Dean Bragonier, who talked about shame surrounding dyslexia and I’ve known since I was 40 that I was dyslexic. It resonated so strongly with me that I sought him out and my wife knew him,” Schaech said. “I talked to the guys and was explaining the Ted Talk to them when Steve [Zahn] sent me a link. He had done a talk at Transylvania University in Kentucky talking about his dyslexia. Then Ethan [Embry] said he had been diagnosed when he was a kid. Then we found out Liv [Tyler] was dyslexic. We thought we have to do this.”
According to Schaech, the organization works with Harvard University to develop curriculum to help meet students where they’re at and to promote confidence in themselves. He says the SeaWolves event was a great platform to promote the work they’re doing and how they’re helping kids.
“I thought this is a very powerful experience for students to use this curriculum to help them and also to have support from NoticeAbility. We work to get this in front of school systems and parents but it’s difficult. This gave us a platform to get the word out.”
Next on the list was getting the jerseys made. The team had to call in some help from the actors to make sure it looked just right.
“Back in 1996, there weren’t many digital files at that point so we had to basically recreate The Wonders logo from scratch. Tom Everett Scott has the original drumhead from the movie and that’s what we used for color matching,” Coleman said. “And Playtone’s logo has changed since the movie originally came out. They wanted to use the same logo from the movie on the jersey. We were literally on the phone with a Hollywood production studio working on recreating it and it was a little surreal.”
The SeaWolves also used their past experiences to come up with ideas on what should be included in the list of events.
“2019 was the team’s 25th anniversary and we had several former players come in, including Michael Fulmer who pitches for the Detroit Tigers. We did a Q&A panel and autograph session. We took those lessons and amplified them for this event,” Coleman said. “Between then and now, we also had $16 million dollars in upgrades to our facility, including a new indoor stadium club, which is where we held The Wonders VIP event.”
The pandemic also complicated things.
“We had an abridged season and only got the schedule about 10 weeks out from our home opener. We couldn’t plan like a normal off-season and staff were home,” Coleman said. “This was like planning a mini All-Star Game just because the number of details involved.”
Getting all of the actors together was also a challenge not only due to the pandemic but also their work schedules. Embry was only able to appear virtually due to COVID-19 protocols on the show he was working on. The SeaWolves offered to fly the rest of the guys out but they decided to road-trip to Erie.
“I’m based in Tennessee. Steve [Zahn]’s in Kentucky. Tom ended up being in North Carolina,” Schaech said. “What happened was I drove to Kentucky, Tom Everett Scott flew into Kentucky, and we met Steve and drove up to Erie. They’re so much fun and it was an entertaining drive.”
That Thing You Do! filmed mainly in California, which may mean a shocking revelation for some fans of the movie.
“They had never been to Erie before,” Coleman said. “We took them around town and they were seeing it for the first time.”
Take Me Out to The Ballgame
Everything came together on September 4. The team hosted a VIP event that included a Q&A session, a general autograph session, and a few surprises throughout the night.
“We incorporated them into the game presentation. They sang “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” for the seventh-inning stretch,” Coleman said. “Steve Zahn was on the PA for an inning. Tom Everett Scott was on our radio broadcast for an inning. It was a lot of fun.”
And while Tom Hanks, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie, might not have been at the event in-person, he still helped support the cause.
“We had an auction to raise money for NoticeAbility and Tom sent items from his personal collection to be auctioned off,” Coleman said. “There was a soundtrack that he signed. There was even a jersey he had worn for a ballpark celebration.”
But for Coleman, one of the coolest memories was seeing the guys stick around after the game to watch the movie with the fans.
“The guys hung out in the stadium club for the screening and a lot of folks from the VIP session were still there. For everyone there, it was like having your own private director’s cut of the movie.”
Everyone involved said the event was a huge success. The SeaWolves presented DonateAbility with a check for $25,500, which is the highest amount of any charity event held at UPMC Park. And with the amount of attention the event received plus additional donations, Schaech says the organization raised close to a quarter of a million dollars. Next up, they’re planning on launching a campaign in January called Magellan. That’s a global initiative to help even more students with dyslexia.
Schaech added that getting to be around people again and see them enjoy themselves was special considering Covid-19 hit the That Thing You Do! family.
“I felt like we’ve been at the forefront of this virus. Tom [Hanks] and [wife] Rita [Wilson] both got it early on. Adam [Schlesinger], who wrote the “That Thing You Do!” song, passed away due to COVID-19 complications,” Schaech said. “Being able to do an event like this makes it seem like we were able to bring a little light back into the world.”
According to the SeaWolves, the bar has now been set even higher on creating great nights for their fans.
“The universal response to this event has been positive which is very difficult to do. We’ve also had that conversation about how do you keep lightning in the bottle. It’s tough because you have something here that was locally relevant and people feel strongly about this piece of art and pop culture,” Coleman said. “We always aspire to create great promotions for our fans but I do think there’s a certain magic to that night and it’s going to be tough to beat.”
And as for The Wonders, Schaech says the sky is the limit.
“In the movie, the band went on tour to places like Pittsburgh and Wisconsin and people have asked if we would do a tour. It’s really hard to get everyone together but it would be phenomenal because making That Thing You Do! was the best experience for all of us.”
Photos courtesy Erie SeaWolves.
(Editor’s note: This is the initial entry in the 2021 Ballpark Digest Awards. Watch for more announcements throughout the month and into December.)
Past Ballpark Digest Promotion of the Year Winners
2019: Funko Fridays, Everett AquaSox
2018: Deaf Awareness Night, Myrtle Beach Pelicans
2017: Bacon vs. Tacos (Fresno Grizzlies and Lehigh Valley IronPigs)
2016: My Big Fat Fresno Wedding Show
2015: Ambush Baseball, Brooklyn Cyclones
2014: MiLB Promo of the Year, Myrtle Beach Pelicans
2014: Summer-Collegiate Promo: Kalamazoo Growlers
2013: Promotions of the Year, Lehigh Valley IronPigs
2012: Home-Run Derby, Charleston RiverDogs
2009: BPD Promotions of the Year, Trenton, Lakewood and Quad Cities
2008: St. Paul Saints, Fresno Grizzlies