September 23, 2016
Episode 1: Pilot
Last night, Fox debuted its much-hyped new drama Pitch. The basic conceit of the show is well known: The San Diego Padres call up the first woman in Major League Baseball’s history. Screwballs are thrown, words are exchanged, lessons are learned. Since the show is about baseball, and will hopefully ask some interesting questions about the game, we figured we’d review it for as long as the baseball and the drama stay interesting.
This assumes you have watched the pilot. If you haven’t, there will be spoilers, although by now you’ve probably realized that yes, that is Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell playing the catcher. It should be available on Hulu by now, anyway.
Jarrett: So, there’s a lot of stuff going on here to unpack. It’s a pilot, but there’s a ton of plot and character introducing going on even for a pilot. I’m going to dive right into the baseball of it all.
Pitch did a very sly and tricky bit of world-building through judicious use of MLB and FOX Sports properties. It’s not the San Diego Fake Names playing in what looks like a high school stadium in this show, it’s the San Diego Padres playing in actual Petco Park. At the very beginning of the show, we’ve got Colin Cowherd and Katie Nolan playing themselves to give us establishment exposition. There’s a MLB Tonight hit about Ginny Baker that we quickly breeze past. Ken Rosenthal pops up doing Ken Rosenthal things. The games are national FS1 broadcasts with the full graphical presentation and, for better or worse, the real FOX baseball announcers in Joe Buck and John Smoltz. The camera angles when we’re watching baseball action are mostly familiar to any baseball broadcast. That was really noticeable to me, because most sports shows just don’t get the feel and scale part right unless they scale it way back from the pros, like Friday Night Lights did. In that sense, the Pitch pilot reminded me of the classic Vin Scully/Kevin Costner movie For Love of the Game.
I also thought that Pitch did fairly well with what you might call the baseball player development side. It’s very plausible for Ginny to pair a mid-80s fastball with a plus screwball and, under normal conditions, good command. It’s very much the case that such a pitcher would be phenomenal in high school. It’s certainly reasonable that a pitcher with that repertoire would be drafted in what is implied is a later round. It’s realistic within a developmental context that such a pitcher would, five years into her pro career, be a marginal fifth starter type, which is what Ginny is presented as here. Even the smaller things in this regard, like Ginny having teammates in the minors that are now Padres and Ginny talking about playing in winter ball leagues, was right. Again, it helped it feel like actual baseball.
And hey, Mark Paul Gosselaar is playing a good-looking catcher named Mike with a six-letter last name. Did they write that in especially for us?
Meg: You know what we were missing in our lives? Zack Freaking Morris being the second coming of Piazza, only with sassier quips.
Going into the pilot, I thought Pitch needed to work in three different ways: it needed to be believable as a piece of art about baseball, it needed to work as a television show, particularly a pilot episode, and it needed to work as a show about a woman navigating a workplace full of men. And for the most part, I think it succeeded at all three, or at least, did so well enough that I’m interested in seeing where it goes in future episodes. Pilots have all this work to do: they have to establish a world, they have to establish characters, they have to make us want to watch the next episode. Getting the baseball details mostly right (and never importantly wrong) mattered, and it was amazing how much of the blah blah blah of a pilot they were able to do away with through the world-building you mentioned. Some of the writing was a little melodramatic, and the balance of soap to substance will be important down the road, but the actors did enough with it that it worked.
Meg: The pilot certainly lays track for a conflict between Not A.J. Preller and Bespectacled Owner Dude. I wonder how much they’ll incorporate other sources of conflict to bring some variety to the drama, although the way they grappled with a woman doing work that is normally men’s resonated. A major league clubhouse probably wouldn’t be perfectly hospitable to a woman; it wasn’t. Some of her teammates would probably find her presence unearned or distracting; they did. Not everyone would be swayed in a day, and they weren’t. I can’t imagine the pressure the first woman to make to the Majors will feel; I can imagine that sort of pressure swallowing you up, just like it did during Ginny’s first spot start. They didn’t make it implausibly awful, or shockingly sweet. They said, “You’re a bunch of baseball bros, and here is your boss telling you that you have to toe the line. And action!” In any situation where you’re navigating an environment of difference, you just do the best you can, make allies where you can, and decide (if you’ll pardon the pun) which hills you’re going to die on. It won’t be every hill, mostly because you can’t do the everyday work of your job while always and forever being a symbol and an interlocutor for your colleagues. Sometimes you have to just pitch, hope that’s enough, then move on to the next day. They let Ginny do that. And hey, sometimes you can get a pep talk on the mound from Zack Freaking Morris, even if he would be tackled and dragged back to the plate for taking so long.
Jarrett: I liked that Ginny didn’t go out there and light the world on fire. I’m not sure about having her go Rick Ankiel on the mound first time out, but it was portrayed reasonably respectfully. They gave her number 43 as a Jackie Robinson comp, for pete’s sake. I can’t even imagine that kind of pressure. But even that second start was just a decent start from a fifth starter, where she pitched around trouble and gave up three runs over six-plus. It was your typical Dillon Gee start, and Gee is the kind of pitcher we’re establishing Ginny as. The show has lots of time to show her developing into more than that if it so desires.
Meg: I wanted to die during her first start. It was incredibly affecting. It was the most feeling the show ever inspired.
I liked that they nodded at a realistic source of conflict: fear of losing your job. There are going to be guys who just don’t think a woman belongs, but a wider pool also means more competition for the same number of roster spots. The pitcher Ginny is called up to replace (who looks disturbingly like Clay Buchholz) is all bluster and testosterone, but his big concern isn’t that Ginny will make them look bad by pitching poorly. He’s worried about what happens if she does well. Her presence is disruptive. Even Lawson, who they set up establish as an ally by the end, is made aware that his ass-slapping might mean something different than it normally would. Even those who end up embracing her as teammate will have to change a bit, and that can be hard. The execs are worried about the PR for having picked the wrong woman, but that’s not the players’ concern. They have to figure out their new normal; hopefully the show won’t dwell overlong on it so as to make us think it’s so different.
Jarrett: We should briefly talk about Ghost Dad, since that was the big pilot reveal and also the thing that gave me the most pause about where Pitch is going as a show. From my interpretation, Ginny is an even more extreme version of Todd Marinovich, trained from a very young age to be a major-league pitcher by a father projecting his own dream, at the complete exclusion of all else. That’s a bit of a trite narrative itself, but then we find out that he’s dead and Ginny is interacting with his ghost spirit image? I have no idea where they’re going with this.
Meg: I hated Ghost Dad! This was my one big problem with the pilot. Like, I have a lot of questions. Is she actually seeing him in the stands and on the field? Will they continue to interact? It is a trite narrative, and gives the show a lot of room to just tell us how she is feeling via flashback rather than showing us. I hope this is a temporary bit, and not an ongoing storytelling device. She went her six innings, Ghost Dad. Leave her be now, okay?
Okay, final verdict? There is more than enough here to like, as both a baseball story, and a story about an unusual workplace, and I’ll watch again.
Jarrett: Same here. Back next week?
Meg: To quote Ghost Dad: “We ain’t done nothin yet.” So, yes.
Meg Rowley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @megrowler