“Pitch” debuted Thursday night to some pretty poor ratings, which perhaps isn’t surprising: fictional baseball will always lose to real football.
But for those of us 4 million-plus folks who did tune in to the debut of trailblazing female pitcher Ginny Baker, what did we see? A lot of good material and some predictably predictable fare for a pilot episode of a network show.
Let’s dig in.
The pilot, titled “Pilot” (in a terrific bit of baseball nerd fan-service, the episode’s title obviously references the defunct Seattle Pilots), opens with Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) rising from bed and starting her morning routine in a tank top and some teensy shorts. Episode director Paris Barclay (that name!) lingers on Baker’s barely-clothed body, reminding us that we are looking at the first female major-leaguer ever and not the first Kevin Mench major-leaguer ever.
Ginny quietly prepares in her hotel room before viewers are treated to the first voice we hear in the “Pitch” debut.
And it comes from…
Yes, “Pitch” is a FOX show, which means we get Mr. Cowherd doing full-blown Cowherd shit like saying that “Ginny ain’t no Jackie Robinson!” and so on and so forth. Oddly, this may be the perfect role for Colin Cowherd: in real life, when one is searching for a cogent, reasoned, intelligent contribution to sports discourse, Cowherd is insufferable and infuriating. But here, he’s basically playing the part of Ignorant Naysayer to add context and stakes to Ginny’s story. And let me tell you: Colin Cowherd plays the role of Ignorant Naysayer with aplomb.
Soon after Cowherd comes a “clip” from Katie Nolan’s “Garbage Time,” which serves as a pleasant palette-cleanser — and shows the positive side of having FOX’s stable of sports-shouters on retainer.
As baseball pontificators like Matt Vasgersian and Ken Rosenthal chat in the background, Ginny enters a car with her agent, Amelia Slater (Ali Larter of “Heroes”). There are the requisite camera flashes and hordes of swarming, adoring fans trying to get a glimpse of the young spot-starter.
Slater asks, “Are you ready for this?”
Baker does not reply with, “Yep! You got a granola bar?” or however an actual human would respond. No, she fixes a steely gaze out the window and says: “I’ve been ready my whole life.”
“Pitch” uses flashbacks to establish the relationship between Ginny and her father, Bill Baker (Michael Beach, “Third Watch”), and the road that Bill paved for Ginny to reach this point.
In the first flashback, Bill is trying to teach Ginny’s brother Willie how to throw, and Willie’s not having it. The boy runs inside, probably off to play chess or D&D, because Willie is clearly an indoor kid who does not deserve his father’s love.
Not Ginny. Ginny, you see, likes baseball. She picks up the ball and throws it back — overhand, of course — and it soars past her father, who stares back at his daughter and her golden arm with disbelief. He has himself his ballplayer.
Also, the first flashback features this actress playing Ginny.
I don’t really have anything interesting to say. Just wanted everyone to lay eyes on the most heart-meltingly cute kid ever. OK, moving on.
After the flashback we return to present day, where Padres owner Frank Reid (Bob Balaban of the Christopher Guest troupe) and general manager Oscar Arguella (Mark Consuelos – Mr Kelly Ripa) are introducing themselves to Ginny (only now?) and presenting her with her jersey, #43. “One up from Jackie,” Reid tells her.
We’re also introduced to manager Al Luongo (Dan Lauria, a.k.a. Kevin’s dad in “Wonder Years”), who at least physically fits the part of MLB manager to a T. “Pitch” boasts a lot of great casting choices — and a laudable dedication to representation of people of color — but, man, casting an old crusty baseball manager is easy street. Just find an aging white guy who can bust chops, flash a wistful “I’m too old for this shit” look and on occasion scream before hurling a folding chair.
I mean, look at these guys! I can just see these two mocking WAR or purposely mispronouncing OPS.
Point: Every old white guy looks like a baseball manager if you just put them in a baseball uniform.
This is also Amelia Slater’s introduction to the Padres front office, and she explains to the GM that Ginny Baker is a special talent — or product, more accurately.
“She’s Hillary Clinton with sex appeal; a Kardashian with a skill set,” Baker says, which does not strike me as fair to really anyone involved in that analogy, Ginny included. But we move on.
Arguella is immediately pretty smitten with Slater; later, after hearing from social media guy Eliot (Tim Jo) that Slater may have had a thing with/for Gerard Butler, Arguella describes himself as “the Latino Gerard Butler,” when he is pretty clearly the Latino Billy Crudup.
I’m the one who Google Image-searched “Mark Conselous” to post that photo and I’m still not 100% that’s not Billy Crudup.
After all this front-office back-and-forth, we finally get to meet some of Ginny’s teammates — namely centerfielder Blip Sanders (Mo McRae, “Sons of Anarchy”) and catcher Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, forever Zack Morris despite his best efforts). Ginny knows Sanders from their days in the minors together, and he and his wife Evelyn (a magnetic Meagan Holder) are Ginny’s pals in San Diego. Lawson is the team’s star and captain, and after some light banter in the outfield grass between Baker and Lawson, he slaps her ass. UH OH. Ginny steels herself, takes a deep breath, and promptly rips in to Lawson to cut that shit out. Lawson then delivers the following monologue, which works better if you imagine a self-serious acting student in a turtleneck and thick-framed glasses reciting for an audition.
LAWSON: I slap asses. It’s my thing. I slap Zimmerman’s pimply ass, I slap Rogers’ hairy ass, and as long as you’re on this team, I will be slapping your perfect, pear-shaped ass. I am an ass-slapper, Rookie. I’m also the captain of this team, so from here on out, every time I slap your ass you just say, “Thank you sir may I have another,” and take the mound.
Well, OK then! Glad we cleared that up.
As Baker’s debut approaches, we learn a bit more: Ginny’s been called up due to an injury and is making a spot start against the Dodgers. As she prepares in the bathroom, staring into the mirror to practice her game face, she hears some scuttlebutt from her teammates — most importantly Lawson — through the vent. The gist? She’s a gimmick and will be out of their (manly) hair soon. Ginny lets this sink in and prepares to take the hill.
Again, the show’s presence on FOX makes the run-up to the game awfully life-like, complete with the FS1 chyrons, the game ticker and real-life baseball announcers like Joe Buck!
As Ginny warms up before the game, she spies her father in the stands. This again triggers a flashback.
This time, Ginny is older — looks to be nine or ten, let’s say — and her father is walking her toward a baseball practice that’s already underway. Ginny approaches with her baseball cap on tight and her glove firmly in hand; Bill Baker interrupts practice during ins-and-outs to ask the coach if Ginny can throw a few. The coach is obviously hesitant, because WTF, but he acquiesces. Bill assumes the catcher position and Ginny strides out to the rubber.
Now, just a reminder that since this is Little League-style, there’s no mound; Ginny is standing on a pitching rubber just 46 feet away from home plate, nary an L-screen in sight, to throw some pitches to her father while the coach…
UM WHAT. DON’T DO THAT.
Jesus, man. Are you really gonna take some hacks off this girl? Just rip a couple shots up the middle? To judge someone’s pitching do you require aluminum in your hands? What in the fuck is happening.
You’ll be pleased to know that, no, this insane youth coach does not smash a line drive up the middle that decapitates Ginny. (Sorry: spoilers!) No, she zips a speedball right past him, and he turns to ol’ Bill Baker with a look of shock and Bill’s like, “Yep. Totally knew you couldn’t touch her.”
After practice, Ginny is excited: “We did it, Pop!”
“We ain’t done nothing yet,” he replies, in what will become his episode-long mantra.
It’s time for Bill to teach Ginny the screwball, her signature pitch. See, at the end of Bill’s career “this old Latin guy showed (him) a pitch.” It was a screwball, which will now be passed down from This Old Latin Guy to Bill to Ginny.
Clutching a nectarine, Bill demonstrates the “screwball,” which as I mentioned in my pilot preview, is just a circle change. But, to his credit, Bill Baker does have some good advice on how to throw a circle change: he instructs Ginny to hold it loosely enough to not damage the fruit and to never exert any pressure with the pointer and middle finger. That’s really good changeup advice! Cool.
We now jump back to Ginny’s big-league debut. It does not go well. How not well, you ask?
Yikes. Yeah, not great.
Here’s a list of pitchers since 1913 who’ve walked at least two and thrown at least two wild pitches without recording an out in their debut appearance.
Psych! It’s just one guy. I threw you off my scent by using the plural “pitchers.” Suckers.
And here’s a list of all the starting pitchers who have ever left a game without throwing a single strike.
And Ginny didn’t even get hurt! Rough stuff.
Let’s check in on FOX’s dynamite duo of Joe Buck and John Smoltz to hear some real pros describe it!
SMOLTZ: That is not a good start.
BUCK: I don’t know if I can watch.
Smoltz then tells his broadcast partner that he’s not sure he can summon a word to describe the depth of despair Ginny Baker must be feeling. But Buck can. Oh yes: Buck can.
BUCK: Heartbreak. I think that’s a word. Just heartbreak.
What do you think: should we help clear up Joe’s confusion?
Whew! Glad we could settle that one.
Baker’s heartbreaking debut is intercut with some truly harrowing scenes from her childhood. Turns out, Bill Baker has some pretty, shall we say, innovative motivational tactics.
When Ginny complains of arm fatigue and tells Bill Baker she wants to be done playing catch, her father calls little brother Willie out from inside. Willie is waiting for his sister and father to come in so the poor kid can eat some dinner, but Bill has other ideas. He asks his son if Willie would like to help his sister. Willie says sure, why not? What’s the worst that can happen?
Slap. Bill Baker smacks Willie across the face, hard. Willie looks super sad. Bill crouches down and barks “Paint the corner” at Ginny, who looks understandably torn up about the whole thing. Ginny winds and delivers, hitting Bill’s mitt with a perfect, outside-corner strike. And Willie doesn’t get smacked again. Lesson learned, I guess?
(If it’s any consolation, poor, battered Willie does end up getting some ice cream out of the deal. Talk about cold comfort. Zing!)
Back in present day, Ginny confronts her father in her hotel room and takes him to task.
“I was just a little girl. I didn’t ask for any of this!” she says. “… It wasn’t right what you did — what you did to me.”
Despite her misgivings, Ginny grabs her glove and gets in some reps, her father squatting with his mitt and repeating: “Again” after each pitch. Ginny’s getting her mojo back.
And Ginny will need any and all accrued mojo, because the Padres’ owner and GM are insisting that Luongo keep Ginny up for another start in five days, despite her trainwreck of a debut.
Which brings us back to FOX for another telecast ahead of the Padres’ match-up against the Giants. Buck and Smoltz are back, and in describing the anticipation for Baker’s second start, Buck inadvertently conveys how all of us feel upon seeing him with a live microphone in his hand.
Well said, Joe Buck. I will continue publicly berating you until you apologize to Randy Moss.
Baker’s second start begins much like the first — with errant pitches and Lawson trudging to the backstop to pick up wild pitches. After going down 2-0 to the leadoff hitter to run her career-opening streak to a dozen consecutive balls, Lawson visits Ginny on the mound. He tells her to ignore all the fans, the haters, the naysayers, the little girls who are watching Ginny with awe in their eyes. He tells her, in short, to clear the mechanism.
“You can’t aim your pitches if you’re aiming to please people,” Lawson says, and as the audience collectively groans, Mark-Paul quickly notes that he just came up with that shit on the fly to provide a little self-knowing humor to a pretty wooden line. Gosselaar and Bunbury do have a good rapport and chemistry, and Gosselaar has aged into a fine comedic actor while retaining that Zack Morris scampiness. And he has a beard now!
Baker acquits herself much better in Start #2, ending the game with 6 1/3 innings pitched, eight hits, three runs and five strikeouts — certainly good enough for a spot starter called up from Triple-A.
We do get one final flashback, in which the “Pitch” writers drop the pilot’s bombshell: her father died in a car accident just after Ginny pitched her North Carolina high school to a state championship. HE’S BEEN DEAD THIS WHOLE TIME, PEOPLE. Turns out, Ginny’s late-night throwing session was just her hucking balls off a mat. I’ll jump into the decision to Mr. Robot her father in later recaps, but for now I’ll just say this: it was not terribly surprising or terribly galling, though I do think that the gimmickry distracts a bit from what is a perfectly compelling story without her father being Bruce Willis from “The Sixth Sense.”
The episode ends soon after the father’s death bombshell but it doesn’t entirely eclipse some of the genuinely moving moments of the show, which are heightened by the broadcast’s verisimilitude. Seeing Ginny take her curtain call at Petco Park in full Padres gear, for example, gave me chills.
And just as that warm, fuzzy feeling of progressive thought and forward-thinking television reached its apex, the credits rolled and viewers were treated to the cold shower that is Stephanie Hendel’s character’s “name.”
What kind of “Pitch” was this?
The pilot episode of “Pitch” was a first-pitch, get-me-over fastball that catches enough plate to be safe but is still commanded well.
In this week’s installment of “Reality Check,” wherein I investigate a particular aspect of the show’s baseball-ness and see how it holds up, we’ll look at how “Pitch” handles pitch-calling. (For more of the pilot’s flaws in the baseball logic, you can hear one of the show’s consultants get grilled on Effectively Wild.)
The first time we see Ginny warming up in the bullpen, she is not signaling her pitches. Like all of my baseball-portrayal nitpicking, this is a small detail. But I think we can all agree that the small details a) make the baseball feel more real and b) are the most irksome when they’re missed.
This is such a simple, obvious thing. Before she throws, just have her flip her glove up for a fastball! Surely C.J. Nitkowski, who’s a consultant on the show, noticed this? I sure did. Poor Mark-Paul Gosselaar has no idea when the patented Ginny Baker screwball is even coming! To shame.
The in-game pitch-calling is, unfortunately, much worse.
Here’s how Lawson calls for an outside fastball against a righty.
(Apologies in advance for my shoddy GIFsmanship; I apparently had the filter set to “Acid Trip.”)
This is nonsense. The first fastball sign is entirely extraneous: the pinky already means outside fastball. You don’t need the first one. That’s inefficient pitch-calling, Mike Lawson. You’re old; get to the point.
Later, Lawson redeems himself with a signal any pitcher who’s struggled with control understands completely: throw it down the dick.
The main pitch-calling issue “Pitch” struggles with in its pilot is how to deal with multiple signs/runners on second.
Here, in the fourth inning, with two outs and no runners on base, is how Lawson calls for a fastball right down the middle.
So: Lawson is using multiple signs with no runner on, which is bizarre and never happens unless I guess the Giants have full-on stolen the Padres’ signs, and there’s no real reason to believe that.
The “stolen signs” theory is only plausible if Lawson is as careful with his fingers when there ARE runners on base, but watch how cavalier he is after Ginny shakes off the fastball to throw her trusted screwball.
They had agreed on a nearly indecipherable code before the game: third sign. Lawson was proud of his cipher, which had been passed down from his catching forebears and had resisted detection thus far. But when the hurler decided against the fastball nestled in that near-impenetrable series of signals, Lawson squinted hard, looked into her eyes and said, “Fuck it.”
Or, to paraphrase Chazz Michael Michaels: We’re going to pitch to one sign and one sign only.Next post: Trailing 30 – The Penultimate Edition
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