Film and TV

What Fox's Pitch Gets So Right About Being A Pioneering Woman

It’s fun watching Ginny Baker be rude to people. I was hesitant to give a chance to Pitch, the new Fox series imagining the life and career of the (fictional) first woman to play Major League Baseball, because I feared Ginny would be impossibly noble, driven and hardworking — the qualities Americans blindly ascribe to the pro athletes we hoist onto multi-million-dollar pedestals. Naturally, Ginny’s virtues would be depicted as even more intense (and annoying) because she’s a woman and must work twice as hard.

But prior to her first start for the San Diego Padres, when she climbs into her limo amid a flurry of microphones and camera flashes, Ginny completely disregards her overeager social-media manager’s request that she strive for a greater Instagram presence. Ginny doesn’t even attempt to be polite. She simply slides on her headphones and zones out to some classical music as though the young man weren’t even there. That’s when I exhaled — Ginny was allowed to be human.

Right away, we understand what is at stake for her: As the first woman in the MLB, she cannot mess it up. The moment she puts on her Padres uniform, she represents not just Ginny Baker or even her team, but her whole gender, an unfair and crushing burden that can be seen in Ginny’s nonplussed reaction to the encouraging signs waved by smiling little girls in the stands. With every proclamation of “Gin-sanity,” she's reminded that she's responsible not only for the success or failure of her own career, but the entire future of women in pro ball.

Given this pressure, it would be easy for Ginny’s character to veer too grim and determined. As played by Kylie Bunbury, though, she shows just enough vulnerability to be intriguing, surprising, even relatable. What woman hasn’t tried to be “one of the guys,” only to catch one of her male “friends” staring at her boobs? In Ginny’s case, her attempt to fit in plays out to extra-awkward effect when the team goes out for drinks and her own face is staring back at them from the television above the bar, her new and inescapable celebrity seeming to annoy her teammates as much as it embarrasses her.

Over and over, Ginny says she’s “just here to pitch,” but her fame demands more of her. The fact that she remains occasionally unable or unwilling to rise to the occasion — and the near-guarantee that she will, at some point, act like a dumb, impulsive 23-year-old — bodes well for her trajectory as a character on a television series, even if the same leniency toward personality quirks and youthful rebellion might not be granted to the actual first woman to play in the MLB.

Ginny’s character may not have come with a working template — both in the sense that the show’s writers do not have a real-life example to imitate and the fact that Ginny herself does not have the benefit of a prescribed role on the team and in the media — but the same cannot be said for her teammates. With a sport as sentimental and downright weird as baseball, plenty of television shows and movies have been made before, and in many ways Pitch treads well-worn ground: Take Al Luongo (Dan Lauria), the crusty, old-school manager who the owners want gone, or Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), the veteran catcher with bad knees who isn’t quite ready to walk away from the big show. Even Ginny’s father (Michael Beach), a failed ballplayer who wants his daughter to succeed even more than she does, feels like someone we’ve met before.

But with a female lead, these familiar characters get to surprise us. Luongo apologizes after making sexist remarks in a press conference, and we actually believe him. When Lawson smacks Ginny’s ass within the first two minutes of meeting her, we’re certain he’s a douche — and even when he explains that he’s an equal opportunity ass-slapper, we aren’t inclined to trust him. Still, somehow it feels totally natural when he comes to respect Ginny’s work ethic and becomes her biggest ally.

Then there’s Ginny’s father, who died in a car accident before she went pro. He appears through flashbacks or as a sort of ghostly guardian watching over her from the stands, pushing her to try harder (sometimes too hard). His character is too single-minded to be inspiring, though, especially when we learn that Ginny has sacrificed friendships and relationships to get where she is, making her prone to anger and isolation. It’s not yet clear where the line exists between honoring her father’s memory and living her own dreams — and perhaps Ginny herself does not know.

It’s this consistent sense of uncertainty that drives the show’s drama. The tenuous nature of everyone’s position on the team will feel true to baseball fans — as will cameos by actual MLB players, such as leading All Star Game vote-getter and 2015 World Series MVP Salvador Pérez, catcher for the Kansas City Royals, who hits a home run off Ginny in a key at-bat.

For the most part, though, the baseball action itself is lacking, an afterthought to the relationships and careers at stake. Pitch is more concerned with the drama that takes place behind the scenes and the unfair burden and incredible opportunity of being a trailblazer in a sport so closely intertwined with America’s mythology of itself.

And really, that’s not a bad thing. Ginny’s fledgling career has been, at times, less than stellar — but we are invested in her story not because she’s a woman, but because she is a gifted athlete trying to succeed against the odds. This alone makes the show worth watching: Even if we don’t believe that a 120-pound woman could succeed in the MLB, Ginny makes us want to.
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Angela Lutz
Contact: Angela Lutz