More Than A Game: “Pitch” Is Out To Change The Conversation Around Sports And Gender
The Olympics are over, which usually means you can go another couple years without seeing a woman play sports–unless you watch this show.
For something that dominates so much of American culture, our big conversations around sports sure do tend to exclude half of America. NFL players are so ubiquitous that you can’t turn on your television or play a YouTube video without seeing J.J. Watt or Peyton Manning in an ad; NBA stars are the face of hipster clothing brands and appear in massive banner form on the sides of buildings in their hometowns; 23-year-old golfer Jordan Spieth is one of the most bankable stars in all of sports; etc., etc., etc.. When a female athlete does cross over into the mainstream conversation around sports, people insist that they’re less of a sportsman than a horse. The Olympics are past, which means that you could probably go another two years without watching a woman play sports on television–unless you watch Pitch on Fox this fall.
That’s the culture that the new series–which stars Kylie Bunbury as Ginny Baker, the first woman called up to pitch in Major League Baseball–premiering this week on Fox enters. And it’s something that the show’s creator, Rick Singer, is very interested in confronting head on.
“It really feels like it’s so timely now. It’s the zeitgeist. It just feels like perfect timing–not the least of which is coinciding with Hillary Clinton’s run,” Singer says. “It’s obviously long overdue and whatever small part we can play in helping depict that there are no limits to what women can achieve, and show what they’re up against–I think it makes for great drama and I think it’s important as far as the country’s concerned.”
Singer initially conceived Pitch as a feature–in that version of the story, it would have followed Baker through her first season with her pro team (here, it’s the San Diego Padres) from spring training to the end of the season. Perhaps unexpectedly, given how many more hours television gets to explore things than film, the urgency is way up from that as the show airs on Fox. The pilot features Baker as she’s called up from the minors in the middle of the season to make her first start–and to show the challenges she faces, both as a woman attempting to break a barrier in a world that has been closed off to women for more than a century and as a human being, dealing with her own trauma in a high-pressure situation.
That’s a balance that Pitch works hard to straddle. If the show is important–and Singer hopes that it is–it also has to be good, and the two goals can often be mutually exclusive when it comes to telling stories on screen. Pitch is a show that matters to people (the conversation around it on social media alone confirms that) but with that comes a pressure that other shows don’t face. It’s a conundrum that mirrors the one that Baker faces, in fact–people in the real world are as hungry for the kind of representation that Pitch offers as the fans in the show are to see a woman succeed on the mound–and it also means that, if the show isn’t good from its debut, the conversation won’t just be about its characters and its plots. The audience that’s excited for Pitch needs the show to work in order to see more stories like it. So how do you take on all of those expectations, and make sure that the people who want your show are getting what they’ve signed up for?
“Well, listen,” Singer says as he considers the question. “I welcome that pressure. It’s been amazing to see how many people, women particularly, who have come up to me and said how excited they are that there’s a story about women in sports. They’re either huge sports fans, or they were Ginny Baker–they were the only woman on their little league team–and they got to that point as sports fanatics as kids, and they’ve continued, and they feel like women in sports have been completely underserved in terms of fictional television. It’s more prevalent, over the last 10 or 15 years, in actual sports, but in terms of being represented on the screen with characters and in drama, it really hasn’t. There was this void that they’re all incredibly excited about. I’m thrilled at the prospect that there are people chomping at the bit to hear this story and see this character unfold and see all of the world unfold.”
To get there, Singer–along with executive producer Dan Fogleman and showrunner Kevin Falls–had to find a cast that could carry the story. They went with one relatively unfamiliar face in Bunbury, whose career has mostly involved appearances on short-lived shows like Twisted, Tut, and Under the Dome, and one extremely familiar face in Mark-Paul Gosselaar as veteran catcher Mike Lawson, and capitalized on the creative benefits of what each of those personalities can bring to the story they were telling–namely, one in which a new star hopes to help redefine the game and a long-time favorite plays his part in helping her get there.
The part of Baker was difficult to cast–Singer describes it as “a long, exhausted, Scarlett O’Hara-type search,” and says that they found a number of talented actresses who were unbelievable as a Major League pitcher, as well as a number of terrific athletes who couldn’t act. Bunbury, whose father was a professional soccer player (and whose brother currently plays for the New England Revolution) “carried herself with the essence of an athlete,” according to Singer.
“The way she walked into the room, we just sat up in our seats, and I just started praying, ‘please be able to act, please be able to act,’” Singer recalls. “She got about one sentence in and there was just the hugest sigh of relief. I was like, ‘All right, we found her.’”
Finding Bunbury was a pivotal moment in the preproduction of the show–they actually cast her before they had a script for the pilot, because they wanted to let whoever they cast spend a few months in training before they started shooting. As soon as they found her, they set her to work with Major League pitchers to develop her form, giving her the unique task of approaching the part not just as an actress, but as an athlete, too. “All of our tech advisors talk about her work ethic, and how much they have to hold her back so that she doesn’t blow her arm out,” he says.
Baker is the protagonist of Pitch, but she’s not the only character that matters. She’s balanced by the character of Lawson, a future Hall of Fame catcher whose legacy is incomplete–and who sees, in Baker, the chance to cement it by serving as her entry way into Major League Baseball. To bring that part to life, they tapped Mark-Paul Gosselaar, whom Kevin Falls knew from four years of Franklin and Bash, where he also served as showrunner. But the casting of Gosselaar also highlights the crucial meta-storytelling required to make us feel like Mike Lawson has been a part of our lives for as long as he’s been a part of the lives of the fans watching the Pitch version of the Padres.
“This was somebody who people have grown up with, and have a real connection to–but at the same time, it’s such a departure,” Singer says of the actor who played Zack Morris in 88 episodes of Saved by the Bell that aired in syndication perpetuity for the ’90s and beyond. “Ironically, I think the parallels between his real life–the fact that he’s at a fairly young age, but also a total veteran of the business–helped him bring that sort of world-weary, been-there-done-that element that is part of Mike Lawson’s character. He’s not caught up in the hoopla. Dan [Fogelman] immediately saw that he was perfect for it, but also that we had to deal with the connection that the audience had with Mark-Paul from a very early age, so that they wouldn’t see him as his previous roles.” To get there, they had him add 20 pounds of bulk, and gave him the sort of beard that ballplayers–especially catchers–have grown fond of in recent years. “A lot of people don’t realize it’s him when they’re first watching, and at a certain point, when they do, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, he looks so different,’ and it’s great. It really works to our advantage.”
The other element of veracity that Pitch needed was baseball itself. It’s one thing to tell a story about professional baseball players, but it’s another to make a show that feels real to viewers immediately–that is, a show about the San Diego Padres, and not a show about the New York Knights playing the California Devils. “That just wasn’t what we were looking for,” Singer says.
Fogelman had a deal with Fox, and Fox has a deal with Major League Baseball, which gave the team behind the show the sense that they’d be able to do this the way they wanted to, with real teams playing in real stadiums. The entire pilot for Pitch was shot at San Diego’s Petco Park, and had MLB advisors on set and on call to ensure the veracity of the show.
And ultimately, that’s going to be very important for Pitch going forward. It’s a compelling setup, but it’s about more than just “what if a woman played Major League ball”–or, at least, it needs to be about more than that to engage audiences for multiple seasons of a TV show. When the New York Times tweeted the question “How will Pitch cater to the hard-core baseball fan expecting authenticity while still appealing to women?” last week, the analysis within that tweet came under fire–the implication that “hard-core baseball fan” and “women” are groups without overlap is the sort of wrongheaded idea that Pitch‘s very existence challenges–but there’s a kernel of truth in the fact that the show has to be a sports drama that works as sports drama, lest it come off as gimmicky.
The partnership with MLB helps. Singer notes that the movies and TV shows that use real uniforms and have the technical advisors that MLB provides separate themselves from the ones that use fictional teams. But more than just having the window dressing of Major League Baseball, Singer and the Pitch team wanted to make a show that is about baseball.
“We’re huge baseball fans that love the game. We love the intricate feel of it. We’re interested in being flies on the wall and showing what it’s like to be in the clubhouse, to be in those rooms, and what’s actually happening,” he says. “We want to lift the veil for the audience on what these athletes’ lives are actually like. They’re people living under extraordinary pressure, but they’re really just people–who are doing extraordinary things in front of a lot of people, and garnering great attention.”
If Pitch works, it won’t be because it found a way to appeal to “women” and “hard-core baseball fans” as distinct entities. It’ll be because it’s quality storytelling that informs our understanding of the world in ways that conversations about sports–which are such a huge part of the culture–do at their best. The fact that Pitch is about a woman who enters that world matters, but it can’t be a gimmick. Singer, for his part, seems conscious of that, and of the opportunities that the show’s premise presents.
“One of my favorite moments was at a panel, after several women said, ‘I’m so thrilled that my daughter can see this show, and is growing up when this is being depicted,’ and there was one woman who raised her hand and said, ‘I’ve got to be honest, I’m really thrilled that my sons are going to be able to see this show, and that this is going to be a norm for them,’” Singer says. “I thought that was great. In the same way that you see people depicted in movies and it normalizes things, I’d like to believe that this could normalize women in male-dominated sports–and for that matter, in positions across society. That’s the goal. If there’s a nine-year-old girl sitting in her living room watching this and saying, ‘I want to do this,’ and she actually ends up getting to do that? That would be amazing.”