Sports and the drama around it hold an undeniable allure to those who create entertainment and those who watch it. That’s why we constantly see efforts to transfer the stories of athletes — as they try to conquer personal demons, evil owners, and unscalable odds — to screens large and small. It makes for engrossing stories. Usually. Some sports shows and films are pure junk-ball, hammering home clichés while failing to invest the needed time and effort into trying to present three-dimensional athletes with three-dimensional problems. That isn’t the case with Pitch (which premieres tonight on Fox), but something still feels like it’s missing.
Ginny Baker’s (Kylie Bunbury) story feels incredibly real (and feasible). The first woman to take the field as a Major League Baseball player, Baker faces more than a few obstacles as she joins the San Diego Padres: stubborn teammates, a doubting press (specifically Colin Cowherd), an impossible-to-please father (Michael Beach), and the unbelievable expectations of both a team owner (Bob Balaban) who is thinking of the big picture and an opportunistic agent (Ali Larter). Without throwing a pitch, Baker is the hero to countless little girls who fill the stands to watch her first start. She becomes a national story whose significance can’t be (and isn’t) understated, earning her comparisons to Jackie Robinson and Hillary Clinton alike.
But the darker side of the journey is, unfortunately, underrepresented. When Fox released the first trailer for Pitch, a show that’s amply supported by Major League Baseball (a relationship that’s obvious when you see the authentically realized onscreen product and the use of San Diego’s Petco Park), I openly worried that that alliance between drama and an image-conscious brand might lead to a tepid result. And while that isn’t entirely the case — based on this first episode, Pitch will entertain, inspire, and captivate you as you walk beside Baker on her journey — the road for Baker seems far rosier than it likely would be in reality… or if the show had more distance from the organization it portrays.
Baker’s teammates aren’t entirely on board, but their objections remain restrained (save for one scrub pitcher whose job is in jeopardy) with some quickly coming around before the end of the episode, including team captain Mike Lawson, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar. The Padres’ manager (Dan Lauria) gets there too, begrudgingly. While Cowherd remains antagonistic (insofar as one can be as a talking head in the background of a couple of scenes) no one else is frothing at the mouth over the supposedly pure history of the game and fans, more than any other faction in this show, are on Ginny Baker’s side.
Unanimously so. This is rammed home as we see throngs of supporters inside and outside the stadium, and it’s smartly presented as an obstacle that Baker has to surmount as she tries to live up to fans’ expectations while honoring her father’s desire for her to make it in the big leagues. The presentation of this outpouring of support and emotion isn’t done in a cheap way. It’s affecting and it makes me want to live in this world. But we live in Donald Trump’s America where people who are different (and strong and defiant, as seen with Colin Kaepernick’s decision to not stand for the national anthem as a protest against the ongoing oppression of the black community) are met with resistance and sometimes, hate.
And while on one hand, it makes sense to aspire to something more in our fiction and not give haters acknowledgment (even as the villains that they are), it’s also possible that Baker’s ascent would be more inspirational, and the show would more interesting, if Pitch better reflected this reality. Everyone loves a champion, but we love them more when they beat a truly onerous foe.