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Outside Baseball

Fox's new drama about a woman in Major League Baseball, 'Pitch' aims to tell an uplifting story of female empowerment. But is it realistic?


In Pitch, Fox’s new drama series about the (fictional) first woman to play Major League Baseball, our first glimpse of the heroine is a voyeuristic glam shot from behind. Her lush curls are tousled from sleep, her booty is looking fine in her boy-cut underwear. The next shot is of a congratulatory fruit basket from Hillary Clinton. And so it goes throughout the pilot episode. Pitch wants to insinuate itself into our national moment of smashed glass ceilings, but not so aggressively that it alienates viewers. Allow me one pitching metaphor, and then I’m done: It nibbles at the corners when it should just trust its stuff and throw one down the middle.

The pilot introduces minor league pitcher Ginny Baker (played by Kylie Bunbury), who has been called up by the San Diego Padres to replace an injured starter. In that almost dream-like opening, she wakes up in a hotel room overlooking the Padres’ Petco Park, and then is escorted to a waiting limo, a walk punctuated by clips of Fox Sports personalities (Katie Nolan, Colin Cowherd, Ken Rosenthal) talking up her historic debut. The name “Jackie Robinson” is invoked. As the limo reaches the stadium, Ginny eyes the crowd that has gathered to gawp and cheer, and sees a little girl in her daddy’s arms, holding a sign that reads “I’m Next.” A few moments later, the team owner (played by Bob Balaban, always a welcome sight) presents Ginny with her Padres uniform, number 43: “One up from Jackie,” he says, with a catch in his throat.

And then, all that hazy heartstring tugging abruptly ends as Ginny receives a sullen welcome from her teammates. The pitcher she replaced is butthurt with wounded masculinity and openly hostile. She’s forced to use a tiny storeroom as a private locker room. It would be nice to think that the first woman to play Major League Baseball would have it easier than Jackie Robinson did when he integrated the game. But, realistically, in this time of social-media-driven hostility towards accomplished women (particularly African-American women like Ginny), there’s only so much suspension of disbelief a show can ask of female viewers. In this instance at least, Pitch gets it right.

Created by Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer (they also wrote the pilot), Pitch enjoys the full cooperation of Major League Baseball. The show uses actual MLB team names, logos, and stadiums. Bunbury has trained with former major leaguers in order to deliver a credible pitching motion. Her character’s strikeout pitch is supposed to be a screwball that tops out at 80 miles per hour, a realistic speed for a pitcher without a power arm whose effectiveness depends on deception and location.

Throughout the summer, the Pitch pilot was screened at minor and major league ballparks. The Dodgers even held a “Take Your Daughter to a Game” promotion for the show. Clearly, MLB sees Pitch, with its tough yet fresh-faced and relatable heroine, as an opportunity to attract more girls and women to the game, and who can fault the league for wanting to grow its fan base? If Pitch finds a wider audience, it might also soften resistance to women entering major league baseball.

And there is plenty of resistance. No MLB team has a female player on it. No team has a female general manager. There is no women’s branch of MLB equivalent to the WNBA. In fact, the last time a professional women’s baseball league existed in the U.S. was during World War II, as chronicled in the 1992 Penny Marshall film A League of Their Own. There are no NCAA women’s baseball teams to feed college players into the pro system. It took until 2015 for a woman (Justine Siegal) to coach on a major league team. And while Philadelphia teenager Mo’ne Davis made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2014 after becoming the first girl to earn a win and throw a shut-out in the Little League World Series, she is still only one of 18 girls to have ever participated in the LLWS. 

Baseball for All, a non-profit organization founded by Siegal to promote opportunity and gender equity for women and girls in the sport, says this on its statement page: “Over 100,000 girls play youth baseball in the U.S., but only 1,000 girls play high school baseball. What happened to the other 99,000 players? Their love of baseball didn’t just go away, nor did their talent.”

Part of what happened was an unintended byproduct of Title IX, the amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 signed into law by President Nixon in 1972. Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally-funded educational programs, activities and athletics. Girls could no longer be barred from playing alongside boys in Little League. But in 1974, Little League began funnelling girls into its newly-created, nominally co-ed, softball program. Ever since then, fast-pitch softball (which has a larger ball pitched underhand and different field dimensions) has become a substitute for women’s baseball at the high school and collegiate level. The message being, baseball is baseball, and it’s for men.

Softball is great, but it’s not baseball. And all of these systemic hurdles have thus far prevented a Ginny Baker from happening in real life. As a woman who watches a lot of baseball, here’s my biggest problem with Pitch: I can’t forget about those hurdles. MLB’s participation has enabled Pitch to look as realistic as possible, but, ironically, that only calls attention to its unreality. 

MLB notwithstanding, women do play baseball. USA Baseball, the national governing body for amateur baseball, fields a women’s team that won the gold at the 2015 Pan American Games. Three players from that team, Kelsie Whitmore, Stacy Piagno and Anna Kimbrell, were signed by the Sonoma (CA) Stompers, a professional independent league team sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola’s Virginia Dare winery under the condition that it recruit female players. The co-ed Stompers recently won the Pacific Association championship. What an inspiring movie about the integration of women into pro ball the Stompers’ story would make. That’s the story Pitch and MLB want to tell. But next to the real women playing real baseball for teams that took a courageous leap, Pitch is a self-conscious gesture disguised as progress.

The moments of feel-good uplift in Pitch—all those little girls clamoring for Ginny’s autograph—recall the skillful World Series videos produced by MLB. Like those videos, Pitch is often bathed in a kind of instant nostalgia for the glory of America’s pastime. But MLB isn’t the only sports entertainment giant using Pitch as an advertisement for itself. MLB on Fox gets significant product placement during the pilot. (For the record, MLB on Fox may have a self-congratulatory presence here, but it was ESPN that made history this season by hiring the first female booth announcer, Jessica Mendoza, for its national Sunday Night Baseball broadcast.). When Ginny is on the mound, the action is interspersed with distracting snippets from a simulated Fox telecast of the game, complete with the graphics, score ticker and lead announcers, Joe Buck and John Smoltz. More than anything else, Pitch is a triumph for MLB’s and Fox Sports’ marketing departments. 

So it’s understandable if the pilot often looks like it was made by a committee with disparate agendas. As a drama, Pitch at times seems to be aiming for a fast-talking West Wing ensemble vibe, but at others, it mines the familiar territory of a network serial for female viewers, with its strong woman lead and the possibility of dangerous romance. When Ginny first meets the Padres’ veteran catcher Mike Lawson, played by a beefy, bearded Mark-Paul Gosselaar, they engage in adversarial banter that (very weakly) suggests Tracy and Hepburn in their 1952 sporting-woman romantic comedy Pat and Mike. Lawson cracks that she’s the second prettiest teammate he’s ever had, next to Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom he played in a charity game; she bristles when he slaps her ass in front of their snickering teammates, but then asserts herself by returning the favor.

It’s unclear from the pilot whether Ginny and Mike are meant to become more than battery mates, so I’ll say this to the writers: If you are planning to have Ginny fall for a teammate, coach or opposing player, thus undermining everything she’s fighting for, please, for the love of all that is holy in the Church of Baseball, don’t.

As for the B-characters, they don’t come across as particularly fresh. Ginny’s sleek agent Amelia Slater (Ali Larter) speaks in exclamatory passages (“This girl is Hillary Clinton with sex appeal! She’s a Kardashian with a skill set!”). The grizzled manager is fighting for his job. The suave GM keeps hitting on the disinterested Amelia. None of them seem ready to stoke the buzz prime-time serial success thrives on, but it’s early. 

The pilot is at its most compelling when it takes a dark turn, revealing Ginny’s psychological demons. Her pitching debut is laced with flashbacks of her demanding father (Michael Beach) molding her into a ballplayer. Some of his methods look a lot like abuse: At one point, he slaps her brother in the face in order to coerce Ginny into throwing a strike. (How did this scene go down at those family ballpark screenings, I wonder?) 

Uncomfortable as they are, these scenes ring true; this is how champions are often made, how they learn to internalize discipline and drive, even as it leaves emotional scars. “I was just a little girl! I never asked for any of this!,” Ginny screams at her father, back in the present. “I have no friends, no interests. I’m a robot in cleats and I’m malfunctioning. It wasn’t right what you did to me!” The graceful, self-contained Bunbury is very good here, making us feel the pressures of being a gifted athlete. It’s tough enough being a role model when you’re only human; Ginny has the added burden of not letting down her gender.

But even in those scenes where the manufactured drama of Pitch has heft, it still pales next to the on-field drama of real baseball. The scenes of Ginny on the mound should be more intense than they are; the average local team telecast does a better job of capturing the battle of wills between pitcher and batter. The crack of the bat, the thump of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, the weighty silences and bursts of action—watch any level of baseball at a ballpark and you’ll see what makes it such an inherently dramatic and addictively unpredictable game. There’s a moment during Ginny’s second start when Pitch is on the verge of creating genuine tension, but then it’s ruined by a gimmicky super-slow-mo effect from the perspective of the ball.  

Earlier this month, the Women’s Baseball World Cup was streamed live on YouTube from South Korea. There was a gorgeous moment when the Pakistani team, in its Cup debut, made its first defensive out and players jumped for joy. None of that joy comes through in the Pitch pilot. Future episodes need to make the uninitiated fall in love with baseball. Because without feeling that love for the game, it’s difficult to fully appreciate why Ginny Baker, or those Pakistani women, or the high school athlete who exercises her Title IX right where she might not be wanted, would ever put themselves on the line to play it.