Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Screenshot: Pitch

With practice, Fox sports drama Pitch could have knocked it out of the park

Screenshot: Pitch
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

Like its protagonist, Pitch had a tremendous amount of potential. Premiering September 22, 2016, the Fox sports drama from Dan Fogelman (This Is UsCrazy, Stupid, Love.) and Rick Singer (American Dad!, Younger) boasted a crackerjack cast, including breakout star Kylie Bunbury and Saved By The Bell alum Mark-Paul Gosselaar, as well as a piquant premise: the ascension of the first woman player in Major League Baseball. And, just like Ginny Baker (Bunbury), Pitch was up against great odds, as the series sought network success outside of the procedural mold. There were no cops or cases of the week or lead-offs courtesy of franchise names, though there was plenty of snappy dialogue and a bird’s-eye view of the action. What Pitch had to offer was meaningful characterization, incisive commentary, an abundance of storylines just waiting to pay off, and above all else, heart—which, given the massive licensing deal involved, was no small feat.

Though the series was born of a movie concept that Singer had first thrown around with legendary producer/director Tony Bill, Pitch marked the first foray into scripted programming for Major League Baseball. When Fox, already broadcast home to postseason play and the World Series, teamed up with the MLB for Pitch, it established unprecedented access to stadiums, promotional materials, and the like. But for Fogelman and Singer, the league’s involvement was also key to ensuring veracity. Along with showrunner and former sportswriter Kevin Falls, the series’ creators wanted to make sure Ginny’s abilities, as impressive to their fictional scouts as they might have been, were representative of the best female ball players in real life. It’s why Ginny, a number-five starter called up from the minors, had an arsenal of pitches, including a screwball, rather than a killer fastball. (Pitch still engaged in a bit of fantasy, as Ginny’s fastball topped out at 87 mph, while the fastest overhand pitch ever thrown by a woman in real life was actually clocked at 69 mph.)

Fogelman and Singer further kept their story grounded by opting to kick off Ginny’s major league career with the San Diego Padres, a team that’s only made five appearances in the playoffs, none of which led to a World Series win. In the world of Pitch, the Padres are scrappy and capable; they even have two All Stars in catcher Mike Lawson (Gosselaar) and outfielder Blip Sanders (scene stealer Mo McRae). But the team’s standing is such that those in the front office—including general manager Oscar Arguella (Mark Consuelos)—can gamble on a female rookie like Ginny, who arrives midseason, while also looking to benefit from the extraordinary publicity she sparks.

The collaboration with the MLB lent an air of greater authenticity to the show, one that went beyond the depiction of Ginny’s windup and long tossing (though Bunbury trained for months with former pitcher Gregg Olson to get them right). The conspicuousness of all these details—the logos, name-dropping of real-life players, talking heads with real sports TV hosts like Katie Nolan—was a reminder of the business of baseball, where establishing yourself as a brand is as much a part of the job as warmups. The careers of professional athletes are often so short-lived, players are encouraged at every turn to make the most of their “earning years.” Sponsorships, merchandising, car dealerships—nothing’s too gauche or far afield.

Having already broken one barrier, there’s no telling what kind of deals Ginny can land. She’s not just talented and charismatic; as more than a few Pitch characters note, she looks like a supermodel. Her agent Amelia Slater (Ali Larter) doesn’t mince words (or miss out on referencing some of the most famous women in 2016) in describing Ginny’s boundary-smashing allure: She’s “Hillary Clinton with sex appeal. She’s a Kardashian with a skill set.” With her screwball, enviable bone structure, and legions of fans from just about every demographic, Ginny is poised to be “the most important woman on the planet.”

Dan Lauria, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Kylie Bunbury
Dan Lauria, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and Kylie Bunbury
Photo: Ray Mickshaw/Fox

This pronouncement (which is actually made to Oscar) weighs on Ginny throughout Pitch’s first and only season. And it’s not just Amelia who is eager to add Ginny to the history books—Padres co-owner Frank Reid (Bob Balaban, who’s traded much too soon for Kevin Connolly’s Charlie Graham) gives Ginny the number 43 because it’s “one more” than Jackie Robinson’s number. Everyone—from sportscasters to casual baseball fans to little kids making their first trip to the ballpark—wants to be a part of this momentous occasion. Before she’s finished her first MLB game, Ginny’s already a trailblazer; on her walk up to the entrance at Petco Stadium, she’s surrounded by young girls holding posters emblazoned with “I’m Next.”

It’s not long before Ginny lets them down, only to quickly give them reason to cheer again. Much of season one focuses on Ginny’s ambivalence—about fame, about whether or not devoting two-thirds of her life to baseball was worth it, about her hot teammate Lawson (though Gosselaar’s enticing burliness should have made that particular decision an easy one). But the series’ writers, including Fogelman, Singer, Becky Hartman Edwards, and Ester Lou Weithers, find exciting tension elsewhere on the field, as well as off. The support from Ginny’s family—mom Janet (Chastity Dotson) and brother Will (B.J. Britt)—comes with some caveats. Fogelman, made famous for his twists on This Is Us, throws a curveball in the premiere with the revelation that Ginny’s hard-driving father William (Michael Beach), who seemingly helps her rally after a miserable first game, actually died in a car accident years ago.

As a sports-centered coming-of-age story, Pitch was already compelling. But the series filled in Ginny’s life by fleshing out the lives of those around her. Blip is anything but; the canny outfielder shows great ambition as well as love for his family, including wife Evelyn (Meagan Holder). He proves time and again that he’s got Ginny’s back, but he’s also keeping track of his own opportunities. Evelyn has her own friendship with Ginny, but as the show goes on, it’s clear she wants to carve out a niche for herself outside of Blip’s and Ginny’s careers. At the end of the season, Blip and Evelyn butt heads over family planning, something that’s still rarely ever discussed on TV. Oscar, the GM, struggles to reconcile his abiding loyalty to Al Luongo (Dan Lauria), the Padres’ manager, and his obligation to the organization—the latter of which he’s frequently reminded of by interim president Charlie, who places sabermetrics above intuition. The locker room is populated with colorful tertiary characters like Butch Hunter (Scott Peat) and soulful vets like Buck Garland (Jack McGee).

Ginny’s surrounded by inspirational figures as well as cautionary tales, and just as many people who are trying to capitalize on her novelty and prowess. But in Mike Lawson, she has a mentor and a commiserator. Both Ginny and Mike feel the pressures of time—neither player knows how much longer they’ll be in the game. Ginny might burn too brightly, too quickly; Lawson, a 36-year-old catcher, is running low on fumes. This dynamic is similar to ones seen in baseball movies like Bull Durham, where a rising star crosses paths with one plummeting to earth. Pitch complicates things with a growing attraction between Ginny and Lawson, getting more mileage out of the will-they/won’t-they than should really be possible. That’s due in great part to the chemistry between Bunbury and Gosselaar, who make wonderful scene partners, whether they’re trying to wear each other out during workouts or being crushed by the pressure of making a run for a wild card spot. Even the inevitable love triangle that includes Amelia yields compelling friction, as Amelia and Lawson have their own blazing connection. (To say nothing of Lawson’s lingering feelings for his ex-wife Rachel, a broadcast journalist played by Joanna Garcia-Swisher.)

Pitch had just as keen an eye behind the camera, too. In addition to Bunbury, Gosselaar, and McRae, the series drew top-notch talent like Paris Barclay, whose direction of the premiere manages to turn the introduction of the lead character, whose face has been in a multitude of ads, into a grand reveal, and Regina King, who helmed the fourth episode, “The Break.” Before capturing One Night In Miami…, King framed the fractures of a family, between a daughter (Ginny) and mother (Janet) who see for the first time the toll that their overachieving patriarch has taken on them. Writers like Tanner Bean and Katrina Mathewson helped establish the kind of amiable patter that made good on Fogelman’s early promise of “The West Wing, but for baseball.”

Ali Larter and Kylie Bunbury
Ali Larter and Kylie Bunbury
Photo: Ray Mickshaw/Fox

For the 10 episodes it aired before formally being canceled in 2017 (the back order for episodes never came), Pitch held viewers’ attention by playing up all the emotions that sports, particularly baseball, stir. Feverish loyalty and passion, heartbreak and triumph, pride and disappointment—in nine innings, you could cycle through them all. The series never narrowed its vision, exploring misogyny in sports media one week and the fraught relationship between owners and players the next, while always leaving room for these stories to grow. Yet Ginny remained the lens through which we viewed these themes, and the captivating Bunbury made a powerful locus for the discussions of representation and responsibility.

In an early episode, Ginny is pressed by Garcia-Swisher’s Rachel to stand up for a woman who was sexually assaulted after entering the wrong locker room. “Woman to woman,” Rachel says, “this girl was in your exact shoes.” Ginny’s response is swift and devastating: “No one’s in my shoes. And screw you for putting that on me.” Amelia is glad that Ginny avoided politicizing her image, but neither Amelia’s maneuvering nor Rachel’s entitlement ultimately inform Ginny’s decision. When she does speak up on behalf of the woman and other assault victims, it’s on no less than a late-night talk show (Jimmy Kimmel Live!). In arcs like these, Pitch looked beyond the world of baseball, at towering sports figures like Michael Jordan, who refused to make political statements of any kind at the height of their careers—not acknowledging that their reticence was inherently political. It doesn’t take Ginny more than a week to figure this out for herself: As she tells Kimmel, “Seems like I’m making a statement just by existing lately.”

Ginny’s reminded time and again of what her life means—to the sport, to her fans. And though Bunbury isn’t quite as revolutionary a figure as her character, her presence as a young Black woman at the top of the call sheet is significant. In the years since Pitch was canceled, Fox shuttered most of its series with Black leads, including Rel, Proven Innocent, The Cool Kids, Empire, and Lethal Weapon (though the latter two were plagued by issues off-set). First-responder dramas 9-1-1 and 9-1-1: Lone Star both feature Black leads in their ensembles, but the network’s current lineup (along with their competition’s) is a reminder of how incremental the gains are when it comes to inclusivity.

Ginny Baker’s struggle with being a “first” made for television that was both moving and gripping—a drama with characters and character. That may not have been enough for Fox to keep the show on the air (or for Disney+ to move forward with a revival in 2019), but it does make Pitch one of the most memorable rookies in years.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? A wonder. To paraphrase a quote about a different sport, it coulda been a contender.