OCTOBER 24, 2016
A FEW YEARS AGO, while researching a story about baseball wives, I fell into a rabbit hole of women-and-baseball-themed television shows. It was not a very big rabbit hole, nor was it a particularly deep or well-constructed burrow, but I still spent plenty of time rooting around the ugly interior. The two shows I discovered and binge watched were Baseball Wives (VH1, 2011) and Pete Rose: Hits & Mrs. (TLC, 2013). The former features a group of wives and girlfriends (#WAGS for the hashtag set) marginally attached to current and retired major leaguers; the latter does a The Osbournes–style treatment of Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose, his new romance (former Playboy model Kiana Kim), and her two tweeny kids. Both shows ventured away from the dominant representations of baseball women in popular culture — rather than an empowered team of women taking the field for themselves a la A League of Their Own or presenting a Bull Durham–style sultry paramour with a good heart, they gave us real baseball women: warts, boob jobs, and all. And, until very recently, that’s all we had.
With Fox’s new drama Pitch, we can add a third TV show about women and baseball to our still-short list. This one lands somewhere entirely different than the uncanny “reality” of Wives and Mrs., somewhere very far from the feminist fantasy of A League of Their Own, but somehow it still manages to seem strangely realistic and familiar. First, the setup: Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), a 23-year-old pitcher with a killer screwball, is about to make her debut with the San Diego Padres as Major League Baseball’s (MLB’s) first female player. The pilot tracks her arrival in San Diego, her catastrophic first start, and her comeback second trip to the mound, with lots of establishing flashback scenes and locker-room tension in between. Along the way, the sports narrative clichés come flying with the regularity of a pitching machine. (See David Sim’s review in The Atlantic for a good recap of the many tropes. Q: “Are you ready for this?” A: “I’ve been ready my whole life.”) Co-creators Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer hope, and are probably right, that all the canned lines and familiar obstacles are forgiven for three good reasons: (1) baseball fans love familiarity, (2) she’s a woman! and (3) it’s real baseball. Sort of.
Let me tackle the lady angle first: The opening shots — a luxurious bed, a sexy pair of legs, a terrific mane of curly black hair, and a seductive neck roll, followed by a pretty gratuitous butt shot (to her credit: practical undies) are scintillating: Ginny Baker is a hottie, or at least has the capacity for it. However, she takes one look at the baseball stadium looming out her hotel window, promptly wraps herself in spandex, and exits stage left. The costume change to a “uniboob”-inducing sports bra and a panning shot of good-luck bouquets from Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton shift our attention from Ginny-as-broadcast-drama-sex-object to Ginny-as-national-icon, and she remains swaddled in workout gear and/or home-field whites for the rest of the episode. The message: She’s a woman, but this is not about that, it’s about being an athlete. I have a hunch that enough of Fox’s potential viewing audience — and the United States in general — might recognize echoes of the Williams sisters in this switcheroo: from watching Venus and Serena for most of two decades, we can understand the seamless transition from sexy to boss and back again as a central part of the mythology of the female athlete.
And how athletic an athlete is she? Very. Bunbury even got a pitching coach, the retired MLBer Gregg Olson, to teach her to throw, and in interviews she’s admitted to three-a-week pitching sessions, intermixed with boxing workouts, all to make sure her performance passes the eye test. It’s a refreshing and convincing approach after the antics of A League of Their Own (somehow I don’t think Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna had that kind of training schedule) and the aforementioned #WAG storylines, where every scene is another opportunity for catwalk or catfight and there’s way too much crying for it to be “real” baseball.
Not only does Ginny play like a ballplayer, but she’s playing for a real team, at a real stadium, and her games are being broadcast on a real TV station. Even if it’s fictional, Pitch, the first scripted TV show with the MLB’s imprimatur, is deeply invested in authenticity. That means use of the Padre’s logo (a nice gender-bending touch to have a woman play for the fathers), official team uniforms, and access to San Diego’s Petco Park for three weeks this past summer. And because it’s broadcast on Fox, the station’s on-air commentators make regular cameos and every in-game scene is emblazoned with Fox Sports 1 (FS1) logos. Fox and MLB must be hoping that the cross promotion will spark a feedback loop: the Pitch season started just a few weeks before postseason baseball, the month of every year that televised baseball tries to redeem itself for a long, anemic viewing season — and Fox has been the TV home of the World Series since 2001. Maybe the John Smoltz product placement will jog a few happy trips down memory lane?
Sum total, Pitch has no shortage of cred-boosting details. It may not be reality TV, but it’s going for verisimilitude via some really deep access. By contrast, the only mention of baseball in Baseball Wives (despite filming during the postseason, when surely a more devoted baseball wife would be watching, or at least cognizant of, the approaching Fall Classic) are some b-roll clips of batting practice, shot in such a way that they would not need to secure rights to any specific teams or players. And is there real baseball in Hits and Mrs.? Pete Rose, still banned from Major League Baseball for gambling (and likely to stay that way unless he somehow outlives newish MLB commissioner Rob Manfred), spends some time on a little league field, where he makes his girlfriend’s son cry, but doesn’t get much closer to the game than that. Though in one of the most painfully awkward episodes of the season, the blended family goes to Cooperstown, where Kiana and the kids visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum while Pete mopes across town and signs autographs for cash. Sad!
In other words, up until now, women have largely been shunted to the sidelines in baseball-focused entertainments, and on those sidelines they are too often asked to do embarrassing things for the sake of their male partners or their show’s ratings or both. I am glad that Pitch exists because it is not that. Sure, it might be a brazen attempt to get women excited about a sport they, as a demographic, typically avoid, but it’s also trying, intermittently, to be more. This is a primetime show on broadcast TV about gender equality in the workplace starring a strong woman of color. Even if the office is a stadium and the suits are made of an inverted pinstripe, sign me up. In a country where, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in 2015 women earned 80 cents on the dollar earned by their white male counterparts (and African-American women earned 63 cents), in a country where a woman running for president is subjected to “manterrupting” 40 times in 90 minutes, we need shows like this. In a word: Yes.
Earlier, I mentioned that despite its alternate universe premise, there is something very familiar about Pitch. Baseball fans are a nostalgic lot — we like cheering for athletes we know, we like remembering great plays gone by, we like hoping the next underdog will win the way the last one did. Raise your hand if you still have a poster of Ken Griffey Jr. on your office wall. (Author raises her hand.) But perhaps I didn’t convey just how familiar the show is.
Let’s start with the casting. Aside from newcomer Kylie Bunbury, nearly all the other characters seem like that guy you pass on the mall escalator, the one who you’re pretty sure you know from somewhere. It makes Ginny’s newness that much newer, but it also does the double-duty of making viewers feel at home with a new product — a welcome security blanket in the dark scary night of pilot season.
The most obvious example is Zack Morris — I’m sorry, I mean Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who plays Mike Lawson, the team’s all-star catcher. The former teenage hunk and protagonist of Saved by the Bell is hardly recognizable with the weight he gained for the part and the neck beard that would have looked at home in the Red Sox clubhouse circa October 2013. Once you see it you can’t unsee it, and it’s a smart and tricky bit of casting to make a whole generation of viewers feel instantly connected to a character who makes a gruff introduction (a butt slap is involved). The familiarity extends to the script; Lawson is the master of the cliché, including, during a motivational trip to the mound, straight up announcing a meta-moment: “I suppose this is the part in the movie where I give the great speech that saves the day.” I’m sure it sounded sly on paper, but the smart-talking fell pretty flat on delivery. Perhaps he should have delivered his monologue to the camera.
Second to the plate on the familiarity lineup would be Coach Al Luongo, played by Dan Lauria. It’s a stroke of genius for the show to explicitly evoke retired Yankee coach Joe Torre by casting look-alike Kevin Arnold’s dad from The Wonder Years. The Torre reference is not a bad thing, and to the writers’ credit, the way Luongo’s cantankerous, wrinkled-and-gray flower blooms over the first few episodes is surprising and fairly satisfying. The remainder of the cast — including a tough-as-balls agent (Ali Larter, of the Varsity Blues whipped cream bikini) who’s channeling Claire Underwood, a GM (Mark Consuelos, a.k.a. Mr. Kelly Ripa) who’s channeling a used Bentley dealer, and an owner (Bob Balaban) who everyone’s seen in something, considering his career spans from Midnight Cowboy to Seinfeld to Wes Anderson’s latest films — are each their own little flicker of recognition. This team looks familiar.
And then there’s Pop.
Actor Michael Beach, whose film roles go back to the 1990s (Waiting to Exhale) and whose mustache harkens back to Steve Harvey, might also seem familiar. As a scripted character, Bill Baker ups the “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” game: he is the tough-loving dad with a chip on his shoulder, the father who trains his kid twice as hard because he never got out of the minors … it’s the oldest play in the book, not to mention that the demanding Dad/Coach dynamic might remind viewers of the Williams sisters yet again. That he chooses his daughter rather than his son to mentor and dote on is explained in one of five flashbacks in the pilot. (One hopes the sepia drains moving forward.)
The good thing about publishing this piece a few episodes into the series is that I can spoil the pilot (or you can stop reading right now): Bill Baker is dead. He died on the way home from Ginny’s high school state championship game; he’s a ghost. Ginny can see him; no one else can. That doesn’t stop the Bakers from fighting in Ginny’s hotel room after her miserable first start, nor from playing catch until she again finds her strike zone. And it doesn’t keep her from repeating their very cheesy reprise at every one of her milestones — Ginny: “We did it, Pop.” Pop: “We ain’t done nothing yet.” — even when she’s speaking into the ether.
Hang on a sec: Dad with an ax to grind about the minor leagues has a kid? Lingering competitiveness and regret leads to over-the-top training sessions with kid? Kid flairs out under father’s pressure but is ultimately motivated by the enduring desire to make things better for said father? A dramatic, vindicating, supernatural reunion? Pitch’s pilot has a strong whiff of Kevin Costner’s 1989 classic Field of Dreams. Sure, that movie is trying to redeem a generation of ousted ballplayers on an Iowa cornfield, and Pitch is trying to prove the validity of an entire gender in Petco Park, but the parallel daddy issue driving both narratives surprises. That W. P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe, the novel on which Field of Dreams was based, died just a few days before Pitch’s debut is either a nice cosmic passing of the torch or a convenient exit from someone who might’ve yelled, “Hey, that’s my story!”
But there’s another ghost in the outfield of Pitch. Jackie Robinson is mentioned three times in the first 10 minutes of the pilot. Is this show going to be a commentary on race in the United States? Not quite, or at least, not yet. In an interview, director Paris Barclay says Black Lives Matter will come up — but in the same breath he says he’s in no hurry to get there. (“We can do this for about 10 years.”) For now, the point they’re trying to make is a fairly simple one: Jackie broke the color barrier, Ginny will break the gender one. She even gets to wear the number 43 (as partial owner Frank Reid puts it, “One up from Jackie. We thought it was fitting.”), just to hit the point home. As biopics and documentaries (The Jackie Robinson Story, and more recently 42 and Ken Burns’s PBS special) have shown, his was not an easy path. But it was a made-for-the-movies one. Pitch tosses another penny in the familiar-trope fountain, wishing for a hit.
The “You’re the next Jackie Robinson” line would sound a little wonky if Ginny was played by a white actress. But Ginny is black, which itself is a statement in today’s game, where the number of African-American players has dropped markedly. (If the show was going for verisimilitude, Ginny would be white, or Latina. The African American population in the MLB peaked in 1981, at 18.7 percent of athletes, and it is back down around 8 percent today.) But Ginny’s casting is likely more about continuing to diversify the TV landscape than it is about reflecting the current MLB one. In January, after the 2016 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award nominees were announced and not a single nonwhite actor had been put forward, Barclay — who also serves as the president of the Directors Guild of America — made waves by calling out his profession. “The current Oscar controversy,” he wrote in a statement, “has put a spotlight on a condition that has long shamed this industry: the lack of women and people of color across all aspects of opportunity and employment.” Pitch’s commendably multiethnic casting nods to this issue, and the show drops in the occasional peppy jab at racial stereotype. In the first episode, player Blip Sanders exclaims in wonder at his “little black boys eating sushi”; in the second, GM Oscar Arguella corrects owner Frank Reid, who’d called him a “Spanish Superman,” with a curt, “I’m Mexican.” Typecasting still does pop up, though — between the nerdy social media assistant and the hapless Korean player in episode 3, Pitch isn’t particularly nice to Asians.
Hiring a diverse cast and harkening back to an achievement 69 years young does seem more tidily inspirational than a nuanced representation of racial dynamics in American professional sports might otherwise be. The same day as the show’s debut, Seattle Mariners catcher Steve Clevenger tweeted out: “Black people beating whites when a thug got shot holding a gun by a black officer haha (expletive) cracks me up! Keep kneeling for the anthem!” (The following day, the Mariners suspended him for the rest of the season.) “Keep kneeling,” is, of course, a taunting reference to San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick and the athletes across the country who have joined him in choosing to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police brutality against African Americans. That Kaepernick’s action and this new wave of nonviolent protest made the cover of Time suggests athletes are playing a significant part in the current conversation about race in the United States. And that 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos visited the White House with the 2016 US Olympic team, five decades after being sent home from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics for raising their fists during the national anthem says it’s been a long time coming. How long will Pitch viewers have to wait to catch up with this conversation? Clevenger’s Twitter outburst gave us a galling glimpse into the reality of an MLB clubhouse — will Pitch risk its feel-good aesthetic to make this real-life drama more visible? If the plot lines planted in the first three episodes — front office fireworks, lots of ex-wives and ex-boyfriends, the nation abuzz about a student-athlete rape case, and beanball — are any indication, the MLB-sanctioned show will be staying far away from the racial foul lines for now.
But for the show — and for the sport — an honest conversation about race is due. To get toward why, it might be helpful to go back to Field of Dreams and the Yoda of the film, Terence Mann (played by a cantankerous James Earl Jones): “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball … [bad metaphor about America and steamrollers, another stinker about America and blackboards] … It reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again.” The line is majorly cornball, but it’s also kind of true for where baseball typically lands in the American imaginary. It’s no longer the most popular game, but it is the most ever-present one, from the day-in-day-out of its extended season, to the long careers of some athletes, to the epic trail of legendary games and unforgettable players that live on in some corners of the national psyche. But that closing bit, “All that once was good, and could be good again,” heard today, smacks a little of “Make America Great Again,” especially when the line’s delivered against a backdrop of the all-white cornfield league. It’s obviously not what Mann, or FoD’s screenwriters intended in their nostalgic declaration, but we’re also better at listening for implicit bias now than in the late 1980s.
Do we have to go back to the good ol’ days to make baseball good? Is familiarity really what we, as baseball fans, want? That gets us to a central question: What do baseball fans want? Fox has some chips on the table with a new big-budget drama, but with perennially declining popularity — manifest in slumping ticket sales and lower-than-ever TV ratings — baseball has perhaps an even bigger stake in answering that question. The MLB won’t go poof and disappear, but it does run a real risk of being relegated to the Iowa cornfields of cable.
Finding the solution has fallen squarely on Commissioner Manfred’s shoulders, and in his first season as boss he tried the incremental adjustments of speeding up the pace of play (stopwatches counting warm-up time and umps barking at any hitter who stepped out of the batter’s box) to make it faster, and thus, more appealing to our ADHD attention spans (and those lucrative TV audiences). These changes may shorten the average game by a few minutes, but they have the sex appeal of stomped-on peanut shells — there might still be a little nut in there, but the effort of digging around on the ground feels foolish when you’re trying to climb back up from 70th place in the ratings. Okay, a sped-up game isn’t what fans want. “Next big idea?” someone in baseball’s boardroom must’ve asked, and in walked the producers of Pitch. Last time I checked, sex sells. It’s worth MLB’s while to try and graft a sexy protagonist onto what is, in just about every other way, the scripted version of the same old game.
MLB and Fox seem to be missing the obvious here: there’s another way forward than revving up the nostalgia machine. It’s one that doesn’t cynically imagine a utopian future for the game in order to court both female viewers and the male gaze. Nor does it use apologist misogyny (“The team’s not jerks, they’re just skeptical!” and “How can I be a sexist, my daughter’s the smartest woman I know!?”) as its narrative arc because those are conflicts we are (becoming) equipped to handle. As the recent tragic death of All-Star pitcher José Fernández brought to the fore, there is (or was, at least) more than one future in baseball. While stiff lips and warning pitches may still be the norm in baseball etiquette (and indeed, the blow by makes an appearance in the third episode of Pitch), Fernández was setting a new tenor for the game, one that didn’t cast any longing backward glances or conform to the “rules.” Some might call it a Latin flair — in a New York Times tribute to the pitcher, Mets catcher René Rivera said (in Spanish), “We Latinos enjoy the game a little differently than Americans. He enjoyed the game and the Latin flavor. His joy for baseball, that’s what we’ll remember.” — but it’s not necessarily siloed by race or ethnicity. It’s more about breaking decorum when you have to, celebrating accomplishment with your whole heart, and playing the sport like your life depends on it (in the case of a Cuban defector, in some ways it did). As Josh Levin put it in his very fine tribute on Slate, Fernández had “a kind of generosity of spirit that’s rare at any level of any sport.” The week after his death, that big-heartedness had already started spilling over, as demonstrated by Dee Gordon’s leadoff home run in the Marlins’s first game back after the tragedy: as he rounded the bases he started crying for his friend, and the tears continued all the way back to the dugout, where one teammate after another — each of them wearing Fernández’s number 16 — embraced the second baseman. It’s an almost impossibly moving clip, and it might be worth it for Pitch to think about why.
This heartfelt kind of baseball isn’t a repeat of what it once was — it’s a new model of what it can be. Baseball can be culturally diverse and emotional and, sometimes, surprising. Pitch can do the same, if it sends some of the clichés to the showers and gives Ginny the chance to blaze her own path rather than trying to fall in line with her typecast teammates and the conservative clubhouse legacy they represent. If Pitch takes its revolutionary premise and uses its access and resources to imagine what the sport could be — now that would be some kind of show. Maybe, from here on out, there will be more crying in baseball, and that will be a good thing.