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Pitch director on challenges of bringing baseball to life

‘Baseball is the gigantic Trojan horse that we’re busting down the doors of network TV with,’ he says

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Tommy Garcia / FOX; JB Lacroix/WireImage

You’ve learned the rules of the game, and you’ve met the players, but now meet the man who brought Pitch to life on the small screen.

Paris Barclay, whose credits include shows on opposite ends of the spectrum — Sons of Anarchy and Glee — was tasked with directing the pilot for Fox’s new baseball drama, which follows a young female pitcher (Kylie Bunbury) who defies the odds when she becomes the first woman to play in the major leagues.

But, much like everyone else involved with the show, the executive producer stresses that Pitch isn’t just a sports show. “Baseball is like the gigantic Trojan horse that we’re busting down the doors of network television with,” he says. “Inside the Trojan horse is a story about a woman finding her place in a man’s world.” Below, Barclay details his vision for the Dan Fogelman-Rick Singer drama:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You guys talked a lot at TCA about how this is not just a baseball show.

PARIS BARCLAY: They talked a lot about baseball at TCA. I got so bored. [Laughs]

If this is not just a baseball show, what is it?

The whole idea of the show is it’s set in baseball like any other work place. You don’t have to be interested in working at a superstore to enjoy Superstore. You don’t even have to be interested in working for the government to enjoy The West Wing, although that might help.That’s just where they actually happen to work, and the workplace has its rules and has its traditions, and that makes it interesting. But it’s really about a family that is in the baseball business.

Basically the way we’re approaching it is more as a family drama, not just her real biological family, but the new family that she’s brought into, and all the relationships that are shifting and changing — they’re complicated and they’re different because she’s the first woman to ever do this. Baseball is like the gigantic Trojan Horse that we’re busting down the doors of network television with, and inside the trojan horse is an aspirational, heart warming story about a woman finding her place in a man’s world.

Why do you think this is the right time for a show like this?

It’s so funny because they started writing it 10 years ago and now it’s coming out in the year in which a woman might be the next President, and a year in which gender issues are front and center, and a year in which I think people are finally getting the message that there isn’t very much that a woman can’t do that a man is currently doing. The idea that a woman should be able to get on the mound in a Major League Baseball game and pitch and win, it’s time for that idea to be put out there. It’s time for people to see that and to visualize it, to know it can happen, and to aspire to it.

Were you a fan of baseball before this? Did you grow up loving baseball?

Well, in childhood I played Little League until I was a pitcher, and I got hit by a pitch and then I didn’t want to play any more. I actually got hit by a hit that came from a pitch that I pitched, a line drive actually hit me in the shoulder. I didn’t really want to play any more. I grew up in Chicago so I had the Cubs during the Ernie Banks, Ron Santo days, so they’re always bridesmaids, never brides.

Then I went to Boston. I never became a fan of the Red Sox for obvious reasons, and then I moved to New York where I did fall in love with the ‘80s Mets, so I was an ‘80s Mets fan — Shea Stadium, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez — through ’86 and then a couple seasons after that. Then I lost it because baseball just took too long and my career started to accelerate. In 1989, I became a director full time and I just haven’t had time to sit down and watch a three-hour game since then.

But having that love for the game in your the background, was there a certain visual style you wanted to capture for the show?

Actually one of the things that really did help me is, because I was familiar enough with how the game is presented on television, that I wanted through the pilot to differentiate the game that you see on TV, in this particular case the game that Fox records, from the game that you can’t see on TV. So we built this whole technique in the pilot of the Fox presentation of baseball, which has its graphics and has its look that we zoom into, and then with a different kind of color and a different look you’re into what you don’t see when you watch baseball, which is the conversations they have on the mound, the moments where you can’t be close enough to really see what the pitcher and the catcher are communicating to each other.

So we created both an inside and outside vision of baseball through it, and that’s because I’ve always wanted to know when I see them on the mound and the gloves are up, what exactly are they saying? In football, they tried to mic people for a little bit, but then the unions got crazy. So with Pitch, we can actually take you in there, we can take you into the dugout, so you can see that shot that you usually see from the high third camera into the dugout where you see the manager, you see players in there. Then we can go right down in the dugout and put you in there and give you an all-access pass to baseball. That’s what I was trying to do.

What’s that backlash like for Ginny coming into this game, and how do you keep that up throughout the season without it feeling like these players just need to get over the fact that she’s a woman?

It’s interesting. What we’ve discovered in talking to Major League Baseball and talking to baseball players, is baseball is pretty much ready for different inclusive players, or to include players who are different. What people are not ready for are those players themselves, whether they’re women or gay. It’s not just the quality of playing, it’s the pressure of actually having to do that and worrying about the response. A lot of that has stopped people from taking the chance, it’s stopped players from coming out, it’s stopped players from really aspiring to the major leagues, who could have been on a track to do it. What we’re discovering is some of the obstacles are self-imposed. It may not be as hard as you may think it is to be a woman in the major leagues. There will be people on that team who will embrace and support you, and there will also be people who will stop you and try to oppose you just because it’s going against their tradition of 100 years of the game.

So it’s not all going to be just a brick wall. There’s going to be people who are going to love what you’re doing and they’re going to be there for you, and that’s what we’re trying to show, as well as people who are going to see that, as Mike says in one episode, “Now I have a whole other gender to worry about taking my job.” We’re showing both sides of it, but we’re also showing the pressure that a person might put on themselves being in that position and how that changes and affects everything they do.

I know you guys are working with MLB on all of this. What challenges are you finding in trying to keep it realistic, but then also trying to make a good television show?

It’s a delicate balance, but so far MLB has been pretty good, I must say. I thought they would be much more difficult than they’ve been. They have been really quite helpful and they’ve been open to the story ideas we presented, which are more realistic visions of baseball. We have an episode we’re going to do where we actually deal with the whole predicament of a woman being on the mound in the middle of a beanball game and will she hit the players and will the players hit them? Those are things that are delicate, but MLB has been supportive and have been actually helping us to tell the story in a balanced way. I mean, without it getting totally PC, they’ve also kept us from being completely crazy. What they’ve given us is real authenticity and people to talk to that have been major league players. There is a lot more interesting stuff that we never expected. Knock on wood, but we haven’t had the difficulties that I anticipated you have with having such a big corporation doing it. I thought there’d be many more, “You can’t go there, you can’t do this, don’t talk about this,” but there hasn’t been nearly as much as I thought.

Do you feel like you’re staying pretty true to life as far as what’s happening in the game right now, too?

Yeah we are, but we also want to tell the kind of show that makes you feel good. We don’t want to tell a show that makes you feel bad. I think there are plenty of shows, and you’ve probably been watching them, that leave you just feeling like, “I’ve just spent another hour and I’m completely depressed.” We think television is full of those kinds of shows, to the point where I don’t even watch as much television. I watch Survivor, that’s what I watch. I’ve watched every episode of Survivor since season 1, because I generally want to be entertained, distracted, and if anything, a little bit elevated. I like Undercover Boss, so I want to feel something when I’m watching television.

That’s the kind of show we want to do. That happens to be in sync with what Major League Baseball is not all about. It’s not about dragging it through the mud and scandal and how negative we can be; it’s about going to the ball park and enjoying yourself. If television could be more like that, I’d watch a lot more television. I just miss the days when it was elevated, and so we want to be one of those shows. I think that’s what Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer have really brought to the show and what they want to maintain. That’s going to end up being the Dan Fogelman brand, which is it’s really more uplifting than negative.

You’ve directed shows like Glee with full on musical numbers, Sons of Anarchy with motorcycles…

With full on chaos. Multiple murders per episode, yeah.

RELATED: Breaking down the Pitch premiere

Would you say this is harder or easier to direct given all the baseball choreography?

This is way easier for me, I hate to say, and I don’t want people to think it’s easy. But it’s easier for me not because of the complexity of the choreography, because those things end up being — storyboard is a storyboard is a storyboard. If it’s a motorcycle gang shooting 50 Chinese people, it still is choreographed. If it’s dancers, it’s still choreographed. If it’s baseball, it’s still choreographed. This is easier for me than any of those shows, because it’s more about finding the joy in it. It’s more about finding the positive expression of what it is.

Glee had a little bit of that, which made it fun, but when I’m doing something that I know in the end my kids can watch, and it’s going to be uplifting, and I think it’s going to live forever, and is going to appeal to people whether you like baseball or not, I have a different spring in my step than I do when I’m actually killing 50 or 60 Chinese people. So in that sense, it’s way easier for me to do this because every day that I’m in Petco Park or in Dodger Stadium, I just look around and say, “I’m on the grounds of Dodger Stadium staging a baseball game with the Dodgers,” even though it’s a fictional Dodgers, and having so much fun with it with these people. The days go by much faster.

You actually have Ginny take the mound in the series premiere. How do you build from one of the biggest moments of her career right at the top of the show?

Will she have a career? Will she last? Will she make it? Will the strenuous nature, the physical nature of baseball be too much for her? Will she have to find a different way to play? How will she be embraced or not embraced by her teammates and by the other teams? How will the front office deal with her fame and popularity? How will the other players deal with it? She becomes one of the most popular people on the planet in a very short order.

There’s just so many stories that come out that just getting on the mound is just really the beginning. In the next episode, you’ll see the four days just between her first starts, and even in that time what happens to her, how she’s suddenly in the middle of this tornado of activity, how she deals with this and how it brings up her past. The complexities of that are just the beginning of the story. I think it can go on for many years, because if you know a little bit about baseball, it’s a very debilitating role. Most pitchers have some kind of surgery. Most pitchers do not last very long on the mound.

It’s a struggle, so what happens when you’re a woman with a different physiology, how does that work? It’s very strenuous, even for the actor. We have to count every pitch she pitches when we’re shooting. We have to count. We have to know how many pitches she’s going to pitch in a day and she cannot pitch in two successive days, just like a regular pitcher. We’ve got to schedule it so she rests, takes time off, does her stretching and does all of the things that a professional pitcher has to do because it can be very debilitating. The stories are really interesting.

Then, eventually, we’ll even get to the fact that she’s a black woman on the mound, which I know we didn’t bring up in the pilot, but it’s going to come up. Someone’s going to ask her about Black Lives Matter, someone’s going to ask her about what’s going on in the world. Sooner or later, Ginny Baker is going to be faced with a lot of different questions, not just about her gender, but about her race and about her role in society. So there’s a lot of story to tell. We can do this for about 10 years.

In that same vein, do you feel like there’s a bit of a ticking time clock when it comes to how long she can be in the majors? At what point does she become a one-trick pony?

I don’t want to give it away, but yes, those are things we have discussed. It won’t be a straight journey. It’s not going to be she gets on the mound and at the end of the season the Padres win the World Series. It’s going to be a struggle and it’s going to be a struggle in which she’s going to remain, for a good part of it, an underdog. I mean, part of what I learned, anyway, from Glee is that if the kids become too successful and the production numbers become too extreme, what happens next? That high school spent a lot of money on stuff. I mean, they built jungles on their stage. Sooner or later, when you’re not underdogs any more, the audience can turn against you, too.

From your perspective, are you happy not to go up against Scandal in the fall?

Well, for us, the biggest panic is we were just loving the idea that we wouldn’t be on until January and it would take us all this time. In the pilot, there are 380 visual effect shots, which you don’t notice because a lot of them are very subtle, but there are 380 visual effect shots in that 45-minute pilot. We were happy with the idea of being here in the fall. We’re not thinking so much about the timeslot, we’re just thinking about how can we keep the show as good as the pilot at that level of production and keep it on week after week after week after week? So that’s really been our challenge. When we had until January, we had this sort of very laid out timetable that was super comfortable. That’s kind of gone away now.

When directing, are you trying to stick in Easter eggs for baseball fans?

Well, yes. There are going to be people who know baseball that will recognize not just the announcers, but they’ll recognize other personalities. They may recognize the umpires, they may recognize other baseball players from the past and the present who may appear in the show. But what we’re trying to do is make it fun for people. We’re trying not to just make huge announcements that so and so’s on the show. We want people to see the episodes and then discover, if they know baseball, whose faces are actually in the mix.

We’re not doing a lot of press releases about who’s going to appear in it. We want people to be surprised. Also, frankly, if you don’t know baseball, we want people just to stick with the story. I think people should just be here for the story. Then, if you’re a woman who doesn’t know baseball and your husband is really a baseball nut, he will see, “Oh, that’s so and so there who said that line.” There should be something that appeals to both of these factors.

Pitch debuts Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

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