Watching ‘Pitch’ at Dodger Stadium

Parts of "The Pitch" were filmed at Dodger Stadium. (via Sarah Wexler)

Parts of “The Pitch” were filmed at Dodger Stadium. (via Sarah Wexler)

Fans who came out to Dodger Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 4 had the chance to see two rookie starting pitchers make their major league debuts. First, Jose De Leon struck out nine batters in six innings en route to the Dodgers beating the Padres, 7-4. Then, it was Ginny Baker’s turn for the spotlight.

Baker, played by 27-year-old Canadian-born actress Kylie Bunbury, is the protagonist of the upcoming fall drama, “Pitch,” set to premiere Sept. 22 on FOX. The character is a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher who makes history by becoming the first woman to play major league baseball. A screening of the show’s first episode capped off “Take Your Daughter To A Game” Day at Chavez Ravine. This was part of a wider campaign to promote “Pitch” via professional baseball. The show’s premiere episode has also been screened at several minor league ballparks throughout the country as part of “Pitch Night at the Ballpark.”

Prior to and during that Sunday’s game, there were promotional activities for the series behind the stadium’s left field pavilion, including a batting cage and giveaways. One of the show’s stars, Mark-Paul Gosselaar (who plays Bunbury’s teammate), was in attendance. After the game, attendees had the chance to take the field and play catch as the show’s first episode played on DodgerVision.

A crowd of perhaps a thousand people stuck around for the “Pitch” screening. Those who did watch it seemed to enjoy it, and the small audience applauded as the credits rolled.

(The following is a synopsis of the first episode of “Pitch.” While there’s not really anything one wouldn’t have gathered from watching the official trailer, read at your own risk of spoilers.)

The “Pitch” pilot opens in a hotel room overlooking Petco Park, where we meet Ginny Baker. The San Diego Padres are in need of a spot starter, and they’ve chosen Ginny for the job.

Baker has been preparing for this moment ever since she was a little girl, when her father, Bill, first realized that she had both a desire to play baseball and raw talent. Of all the lessons Bill taught Ginny, perhaps the most important was how to throw what would become her signature pitch: a screwball.

As Ginny grew up, she constantly had to prove herself to skeptics who didn’t believe she could compete with the boys. It all seemed to pay off when, in 2010, she was drafted by the Padres out of high school. Like any prospect, Ginny spent years working her way through her team’s farm system, developing and improving her stuff. But there is nothing customary about the fanfare surrounding her call-up. As the first woman to play in the majors, Ginny is something of a pioneer. The comparisons to Jackie Robinson are unavoidable, and the Padres acknowledge this by giving her number 43 — “one up from Jackie.”

There are, of course, issues. In spite of manager Al Sciutta’s (Dan Lauria) insistence that Ginny is to be treated just like any other player, it’s clear that this isn’t going to happen. Ginny’s locker is in its own room, separate from the main clubhouse. A number of Ginny’s teammates seem unmoved by the historic nature of the situation, and while preparing for her first start, Ginny overhears them discussing how they believe it’s nothing more than a gimmick for ticket sales and publicity. The high expectations of some paired with the sneering skepticism of others prove to be too much for Ginny to handle, and she struggles heavily through her first big league outing, ultimately begging to be taken out after throwing just 10 pitches.

Any other pitcher in Ginny’s spot likely would have been sent packing right back to the minors. However, the uniqueness of Ginny’s circumstances leads the Padres brass to believe it’s ultimately best for the team to keep her around. Ginny’s next start goes much more smoothly, but just as things are starting to look up, a nasty encounter with a disgruntled teammate reminds her that she’s got a long way to go to convince everyone that she’s the real deal.

As with any pilot, the primary focus is on introducing and establishing the characters and the situation. One of the great challenges for new TV shows is doing this in a way that feels natural, yet not difficult to follow, all while being grabbing enough to make viewers want to come back the next week. As far as this viewer is concerned, “Pitch” succeeded.

One of the greatest advantages that “Pitch” has is the fact that it is being presented in association with Major League Baseball — a smart marketing move on MLB’s behalf, especially if the show ends up being popular and well received. We’re watching real major league teams play in real major league ballparks, and it makes the show that much more believable.

I watched with friends Stephanie Larson and Jaime Gomez,  TV watchers and baseball fans.  Stephanie, 21, thinks the show’s use of media enhances the viewing experience. “I liked that when they had a game, the audience was watching just like a regular game on TV,” she says. Ginny’s first two games are shown as Fox Sports 1 broadcasts, called by Joe Buck and John Smoltz.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

“Pitch” is also peppered with commentary provided by sports personalities like Colin Cowherd and Katie Nolan. Whatever your opinion may be about any of these folks as media figures (“Less Colin Cowherd, more Katie Nolan,” suggests Jaime, 33), their contributions lend a sense of realism to the show.

Bunbury’s performance is compelling, and Ginny has the potential to be a great character. She’s tough and she’s smart, but we get to see her be vulnerable, too. “I love Ginny,” says Stephanie, who describes herself as an intersectional feminist. “She’s awesome and strong and I can tell she’s going to be a very interesting, complex character.”

The supporting cast comes across as a bit one-dimensional in the pilot, but we should expect their characters to be fleshed out with time. It will be particularly interesting to see how Ginny’s teammates are used. In the pilot, we’re introduced primarily to three players: Mike (Gosselaar), Ginny’s catcher; Tommy (Ryan Dorsey), a fifth starter whose role Ginny has usurped; and Blip (Mo McRae), a star player with whom Ginny played in the minors. Ginny has very different dynamics with all of these men, and there’s plenty of tension involved, climaxing in a clubhouse brawl between Tommy and Blip.

“While some of the scenes with her teammates and father were a little uncomfortable, I do get that they are things that need to be addressed,” says Stephanie. “I hope they go on to deal with sexual harassment issues, as long as they continue to portray it in a negative light.”

The show’s use of women and female relationships will also be intriguing to follow. In the pilot, we meet two women with whom Ginny is particularly close: Amelia (Ali Larter), her agent, and Evelyn (Meagan Holder), Blip’s wife. “I like that she has a friend on the team, but he’s married, and she’s friends with his wife,” says Jaime, who is the father of two, including an eight-year-old girl who loves baseball.  “I totally understand why they threw in that little detail.”

“Pitch” isn’t flawless. As with many sports-centered dramas, it sometimes crosses the line into being overdramatic. For instance, some of the signs Ginny’s supporters were holding — with messages like “We’re counting on you, Ginny!” — were “a bit cheesy,” in Jaime’s opinion. I felt similarly about some of the flashback sequences. Although they were necessary for establishing Ginny’s backstory, the execution occasionally verged on hackneyed — particularly, Bill Baker’s pep talks to his daughter.

Diehard baseball fans will find things to quibble about with “Pitch” (would they be baseball fans if they didn’t?). One of the primary critiques I’ve come across is the choice to make Ginny a screwball pitcher, as opposed to, say, a knuckleballer. Some people have taken issue with the fact that Ginny plays for a National League team, while the generally held belief is that when a woman does make it to the majors, it’ll be as an American League pitcher, so she won’t have to hit regularly (interestingly, we don’t see Ginny bat in the pilot).

Bunbury, who stands 5-foot-8, has form on the mound that is believable enough. She prepared for that part of her role by working with former major league reliever Gregg Olson, and has developed the ability to throw both a fastball and a screwball. “I’m pretty proud of my fastball,” said Bunbury in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “I can throw a screwball, though it’s not as accurate, and I don’t have the velocity like I do with my fastball.” Bunbury believes her fastball velocity is about 55 miles per hour. Even with that training, though, she’s still an actor portraying a baseball player, and not an actual baseball player, so she’s not going to have perfect mechanics.

But none of the show’s shortcomings mattered to me as I watched Ginny take the hill. I couldn’t resist full-body chills as thousands of admiring girls and women cheered her on from the stands. It was legitimately stressful watching her struggle through her start (even if it was against my favorite team). I felt the appropriate outrage at the abhorrent behavior of some of Ginny’s teammates. I was fully invested in what happened to Ginny, and I wanted so badly to see her succeed. The people I was with felt the same way.

Plenty of things in sports that have moved me throughout the years. If what I felt at the sight of Ginny Baker on a big league mound is any indication, I’m not sure any could compare to the feeling of seeing a woman playing for a major league team for the first time. I hope to experience something similar for real one day. And with women’s involvement in professional baseball becoming increasingly more prevalent, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before that’s the case.

In June and July of 2016, the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs signed three women, Kelsie Whitmore, Stacy Piagno and Anna Kimbrell. The 2016 Women’s Baseball World Cup took place in September of 2016 and featured teams from 12 countries, up from eight in 2014. Justine Siegal broke a barrier of her own by becoming the first female major league coach in the 2015 season. Girls who want to play baseball have plenty of real-life figures to look up to for inspiration, and now they have Ginny Baker, too.

I recommend that baseball fans give “Pitch” a chance. It’s a highly enjoyable watch, and certainly engrossing enough that I plan to stick with it when the show debuts in prime time.

References & Resources

Sarah Wexler is a contributor to Dodgers Digest. She recently earned her master's degree in Sports Management from Cal State Long Beach. She graduated from New York University in 2014 with a bachelor's in History and a minor in American Studies. Follow her on Twitter @SarahWexler32.
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7 years ago

My only complaint is that they should’ve made her a lefty. Left-handed pitchers are much harder to find than righties and thus more valuable.

7 years ago
Reply to  RMc

Yeah, that was my first thought too. In fact I automatically assumed that and only noticed the second time I saw the trailer “Wait, she’s a rightie?” And then I figured she must by a knuckleballer. But maybe that’s a possibility on a future plot arc: faced with failing out of the majors, some kindly old pitcher teaches her to throw the knuckle and success ensues. (It would be interesting to see this go on long enough that she reaches arbitration and then free agency. That’s fun off-field conflict to explore, particularly when it’s vs. the team that gave her a chance in the first place)

Cliff Blau
7 years ago
Reply to  RMc

Plus, what team is going to sign a RHP who is only 5′ 8″?

7 years ago

I’m looking forward to giving this a shot. The problem with a lot of baseball movies/tv shows has been a lack of believability or completely messing up details/rules of the game. I was glad to see they brought in Molly Knight as a consultant to the writers.

7 years ago
Reply to  crew87

It still didn’t keep them from messing up the fact that the Padres had no one warmed up in the bullpen when they took Ginny out of her first game.

Definitely Not Jaime
7 years ago

Those are some great quotes from that Jaime guy.

7 years ago

Disclosure: I haven’t seen the show, and I don’t plan to, not out of any particular feelings about it, but because it takes me half a year to get through a single show as it is. It’s taken me more than a year get through the X-files. So, nothing personal, Pitch.

However, even as someone not particularly qualified to comment, I want to mention that this bothered me, back when I first saw it in the trailer (as described by Sarah):

“The high expectations of some paired with the sneering skepticism of others prove to be too much for Ginny to handle, and she struggles heavily through her first big league outing, ultimately begging to be taken out after throwing just 10 pitches.”

Ok, from a dramatic perspective, I totally get it. It’s a high pressure situation, a person’s MLB debut. Seeing a character weather struggle and failure to ultimately succeed is a feature of literally every non-comedy sports fiction even made. And, maybe I am overthinking it as someone who has seen a lot of baseball, including a lot of MLB debuts. But.

But. I have never seen any player–and player here implies “man,” since all MLB players to this point have been men–visibly choke during his debut. I’ve seen guys get a little hyped. I’ve seen them show emotion. But, I haven’t seen them collapse, and certainly never ask to be removed. I have only seen a guy asked to be removed because of a serious injury. A guy asking to be removed because of the pressure would be a strike against him from which it might take years to recover. And that is if it a *man* did it.

So, would the first female MLB player feel a ton of pressure during her debut, carrying with her the perceived competence of her entire gender? No question she would. Would she be able handle that pressure and pitch credibly? Undoubtedly she would. Undoutedly. She would not have made it through all of the minors if she couldn’t handle that. I understand there is a line to walk between making the character an invulnerable superhero and a fragile flower, but this is way too far in the latter direction, and, to me, really overemphasizes the *difference* she represents, in a place where I think her *capability* should be emphasized. I mainly hope this moment is short-lived in the full run of the episode.

7 years ago
Reply to  Bip

Two words: Rick Ankiel

While it wasn’t his MLB debut, and I don’t think he asked to be taken out, it was his playoff debut (and with an unfamiliar catcher), and he had very similar results. The major difference though is that Ginny managed to get her head on straight for her second start, whereas Ankiel…well, at least he made a pretty successful transition into an outfielder a few years later.

Yehoshua Friedman
7 years ago

I don’t believe there will ever be a woman player, pitcher or position player, in MLB, just as there has been and will not be a woman player competing successfully against male players on the highest professional level in any other sport. There could conceivably be a WMLB like the WNBA at some point, which might be a very good idea, but the physical difference in musculature between men and women is too much of a barrier. At the speed at which a woman is capable of throwing the ball, no matter what kind of screwball sophistication and good mechanics go with it, the hitters will eventually get it and hit her all over the park. In addition the injuries are going to be horrendous. A male body has enough trouble holding up under the strain of a long season. A woman would be on the DL a lot faster. Sorry, but they would have to do an awful lot of violence to the standards of the game to put a woman in there. All the PC and good intentions aside, it is wishful thinking to expect it to work.