[This is a review of the Pitch series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
“This is one of those moments in sports where you’ll remember where you were, when you saw it – we’ve been waiting for it.” So begins FOX’s newest drama Pitch, the story of Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), the first female baseball player to be called up and added to the roster of a Major League Baseball team, the San Diego Padres. But, as noted by the trailer released following FOX’s upfronts presentation earlier this year, the series isn’t based on a real historical narrative; rather, Pitch is “a true story on the verge of happening.”
The series was created in association with the MLB, allowing Pitch to use the Padres’ name and uniforms, as well as their home stadium in San Diego, Petco Park. As such, the series is very much grounded in the real world of professional baseball, with plenty of sports media commentators featured throughout, but Ginny Baker and her famed screwball pitch — as well as the other characters both rooting for and against the player — come together to form a dramatic telling of what could happen if the MLB called up a female player.
Pitch was created by Dan Fogelman (This is Us, Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Rick Singer (Younger, American Dad!), who will both additionally serve as executive producers and penned the pilot script. The series premiere, simply titled ‘Pilot’, was directed by Paris Barclay (Sons of Anarchy) and follows Ginny through her first game as a pitcher for the San Diego Padres — as well as flashbacks to how her father, Bill (Michael Beach), helped shape the player she becomes.
The story of the pilot goes about exactly as expected for any kind of underdog narrative: Ginny is called up to start her first game for the Padres, but it doesn’t go as planned and she asks to be taken out. After a drilling session with her father, a morale boosting from her friend Evelyn (Meagan Holder), and a final inspirational speech from the gruff, cynical catcher/captain of the team, Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Ginny pitches a successful game. It’s a standard narrative structure that fans of movies and TV — particularly those about sports — have seen before, but what makes Pitch truly special is the realism of Ginny’s story.
Due in part to the collaboration with MLB, Pitch pulls off an unsettlingly accurate portrayal of the day a woman will step up to the mound as part of one of the league’s organizations. From Ginny’s separate “locker room” (essentially a broom closet) and her making it known she doesn’t condone her teammates slapping her ass, to weathering commentary from both her teammates and the media about whether she can hack it as a professional pitcher in a men’s league, Pitch strives to portray the entire experience of a woman in a man’s space — and the show pulls it off.
But the pilot isn’t simply about the first female pitcher playing on a predominantly male team, it also showcases both the sport of baseball as well as the business of the MLB. Unlike many underdog stories of TV and movie fame, Pitch is set squarely in the center of one of the largest sports franchises in the world. As the Padres’ general manager Oscar Arguella (Mark Consuelos) points out, the team can’t call up the first female player and send her back down to the minors after one game — the implication being it would look worse for the organization.
In the world of professional sports, the game is only a small part of the whole picture and Pitch seems primed to mine that full picture for drama throughout the show’s first season. While Ginny strives to be the best pitcher she can be, Oscar and Ginny’s manager Amelia Slater (Ali Larter) are running her professional career from behind the scenes. While the flirtation of Oscar with Amelia seems shoehorned in to add sexual tension to the series (though it thankfully leaves Ginny to focus on her pitching), the behind-the-scenes look at the business side of baseball adds a depth to Pitch, making it more realistic.
However, the star of the show is and will always be Ginny, with the weight of the series on Bunbury’s shoulders. While Ginny stumbles in her initial outing, Bunbury doesn’t break a sweat — metaphorically speaking. The actress shines as a young woman with the weight of the expectations from her father, her manager, her teammates, the Padres’ executives, the sports media, the entire fanbase of the MLB, and all the potential future professional women baseball players on her shoulders. Based on Bunbury’s performance in the pilot, she should have no trouble carrying the season with grace as Ginny experiences the ups and downs of her life in the MLB.
That said, Bunbury is not without backup since she does have an excellent supporting cast on Pitch. Gosselaar and Beach are particular standouts, both of whom provide much needed depth to what would otherwise be largely cliched characters. Gosselaar, as the surly veteran pitcher who’s stuck in his ways, brings a charm to the character — which is especially needed when Mike is arguing for the right to slap Ginny’s ass so that the character doesn’t fully cross the line to an unredeemable jerk.
Similarly, Beach toes the line between likable and unlikable as a father determined to do whatever it takes to make his daughter a baseball player. From his disbelief at his young daughter’s natural talent and his refusal to give her too much encouragement to Bill slapping his son in order to motivate Ginny, Beach brings a harsh reality to life: Sometimes great athletes get to the big leagues through incredibly questionable methods. Still, Beach brings an honesty to Bill as he’s teaching Ginny to throw with nectarines, one that paints the character as authentic rather than a cliche.
Perhaps the weakest aspect of the Pitch pilot is the twist in the final moments of the episode when it’s revealed Ginny’s father died in an accident just after she was approached by a scout for the San Diego Padres to join their minor league team. Like the barebones underdog story of the pilot, this particular twist has been done plenty of times before. But, while Pitch overcame cliche with Ginny’s largely realistic story, this twist adds little to the episode other than shock value. Certainly, the revelation that Bill is dead adds emotion to Ginny’s walk across Petco Park field in the closing moments of the episode, but the scene arguably would have been just as effective if Bill were still alive.
All in all, Pitch delivers an all-around strong pilot, with its weakest link still relatively solid, that takes viewers inside the world of the MLB through the lens of its first female player. The show provides enough realism that MLB diehards will feel immersed, and casual sports fans may have trouble discerning where reality ends and fiction begins. Certainly, Ginny Baker’s story feels as real as it can for a series exploring what would happen if a baseball team called up a female player.
Even for TV viewers who don’t consider themselves sports fans, Pitch offers plenty of drama outside the actual game of the baseball — with very little of the episode actually focused on the games themselves. The series is unique in its realistic portrayal of a modern story, and the characters are relatable in their authenticity. But all that being said, when it comes down to it Pitch is an entertaining television show, hitting a home run in its series premiere.
Pitch continues with ‘The Interim’ Thursday, September 29 at 9pm on FOX. Check out the series trailer below:
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