Play Ball

‘Pitch’ isn’t just trying to make good TV. It’s trying to change professional sports.

FOX

Ginny Baker is supposed to be believable. As the protagonist of Fox’s new drama Pitch, Ginny is doing something no one in the real world has ever done before—she’s becoming the first woman to take the mound for a Major League Baseball team. But she’s no gimmick.

“I was really interested in how to do this authentically,” Rick Springer, co-creator and executive producer of the show, told me on the phone yesterday. “No woman is going to throw 95 miles per hour. We’re not interested in making her able to do that by giving her some freaky accident where she tears her rotator cuff or something. We wanted her to be the real deal.”

So instead of super-human strength, Ginny Baker got a super pitch: the screwball, a rarely perfected pitch that—if thrown correctly—flies through the air more like a Wiffle ball than a baseball. Theoretically, it’s a pitch that could get a woman to the major leagues, and that’s exactly what Fox is going for.

That emphasis on realism has huge repercussions on how the show is shot and made. Major League Baseball is co-producing the show with Fox, and has given the show full access to the San Diego Padres logo, stadium, and facilities. Kylie Bunbury (who plays Ginny) is on a five-day pitching rotation and is working with former MLB reliever Gregg Olson to actually learn to throw. She and her co-star Mark-Paul Gosselaar are not only filming their show—they’re exercising like pros four days a week.

This is all to make Pitch seem real, to make what seems impossible, seem possible. Because, according to Springer, the creators of this show don’t just want to make a great television show, they want to make a “great modern-day underdog story” that tells women they belong in professional sports.

What makes the pilot episode of Pitch great, though, isn’t the baseball scenes (though there are plenty of them). The best sports television shows are about more than their sport. Friday Night Lights, for example, gets high school football right, but it’s more a show about family and Texas than anything else. Pitch is trying to do the same thing. It’s more a story about a woman’s relationship with her father and her relationship with the world than it is about baseball.

From the beginning of the episode, which airs tonight on Fox, Ginny Baker is overwhelmed with pressure. Little girls line her walk into the stadium holding signs that read “I’m Next.” Her face is on every news station. She’s become a symbol for all women instead of just a ballplayer.

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Early on, Baker’s publicist calls her “Hillary Clinton with sex appeal, “a Kardashian with a skill set,” and “the most important woman on the planet right now.” Is it dramatic? Sure. But it’s a totally realistic vision of how the world might react to a woman in Major League Baseball.

“I do feel like we are at a time right now where women across the board, especially at the sports level, are really coming into the spotlight,” Singer told me. “Girls are coming of age now where Title IX is firmly embedded in the culture since they were children and sports are really a part of their lives.”

Singer’s got plenty of backing for that statement, too. Ever since the Women’s National Soccer Team won the World Cup in 1999, a slew of female athletes have had the kind of breakout careers that have made them household names. Think Vanessa and Serena Williams. Think Danica Patrick. Singer calls them “templates” of what could happen in any major league sport. Obviously, those women faced plenty of pushback for their accomplishments, and Ginny does, too.

Her greatest hater comes in the form of the starting pitcher whose spot she’s taking. “That particular character is in some ways a proxy for the naysayers in the audience,” Singer said. “We expected she would face natural skepticism.” And in a way, that character also rebuts initial critiques the audience might have of Pitch, by replaying their own words back to them in a mean-spirited way.

Pitch’s biggest blindspot is race. Ginny Baker, the first woman to play for a MLB team, is also a black woman—a subject that isn’t explored. The only allusions to race are Ginny’s constant comparisons to Jackie Robinson and a single comment calling another black athlete “Black Yoda.” Robinson is an easy comparison, and maybe an apt one. Robinson brought about the end of racial segregation in Major League Baseball, and Baker is responsible for the sport’s (fictional) gender integration.

But as Stacia L. Brown wrote for The Nation, there’s a better precedent for what Baker is doing: The three black women who integrated the Negro Leagues in the mid-20th century. As Brown wrote, “[These black women’s] distinct experiences of dual discrimination are rooted in identities Pitch’s Ginny Baker shares. Since the show is set in America in 2016, writing storylines that address both racism and sexism among athletes and sports fans wouldn’t have been a narrative stretch.”

And ignoring the precedent of women’s athleticism is certainly a problem Pitch will have to address further down the line. There is, for example, a women’s professional softball league filled with incredible athletes that I wrote about earlier this year. Why would Ginny have chosen baseball with all of the ugly sexism that accompanies it?

But Pitch still has time to address those problems and even make them focal storylines. Unlike the movie version Singer and his co-creators originally dreamed up, Pitch the television show will have a season on primetime television to explore baseball, and gender, and (hopefully) race.

On the phone, Singer told me a story about showing the pilot at Austin TV Fest. A woman told him afterwards she was excited to watch the show with her daughter to inspire her. And then another woman immediately stood up to say she wants to watch it with her son so he can better understand the barriers to women that exist in sports.

“That to me is everything that the show represents,” Singer said. “We are clearly evolving as a culture. We are breaking down barriers for women, and that’s incredible progress.”

Pitch premieres on Fox tonight at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.