At this particular moment in time, there’s nothing that says you’ve made it like getting a fruit basket from Hillary Clinton. That’s how we know Ginny Baker, the woman in Fox’s first-woman-ballplayer drama Pitch, is a big effin deal: She wakes up next to a column of nectarines from HRC herself. The attached note reads: “Dear Ginny, Bill and I couldn’t be rooting for you more! And of course, on a more personal level, I’m a little partial to someone trying to be the first woman to do something. Best of luck, Hillary.” There’s also a basket from Ellen DeGeneres. (Nothing from Trump that I can see, though I could picture Ivanka sending a formal note and some shoes from her design line.)
It’s a lot to swallow. Not the fruit. The hype. Within the first few minutes of Pitch, we watch Ginny (Kylie Bunbury) duck the paparazzi outside her hotel. We see little girls holding out markers for autographs. A fake Garbage Time segment rolls and Katie Nolan smirks as she remarks into the camera, “Bitch and moan all you want, gentlemen, but tonight, a girl’s going to be the top sports story in the world. And if that upsets you, well, maybe you’re just getting your period.”
No one has invited her comeback directly, but Pitch has to get this defensive moment out of the way. Just as some men might not want to watch a woman play baseball, some men might not want to watch a show about a woman playing baseball. But if Pitch wants to plant a new idea in our heads, they’re happy to use seeds with which we’re all already familiar. They pander hard to people who love sports movies — so, all people, when you really get down to it — and the pandering proves irresistible. Wide, dreamy shots of stadium crowds? Check. Slow-motion game action set to breathless music? Check. And then there’s the roster. Any of these types look familiar, sports fans? We’ve got:
- The hardheaded hero: Ginny is a stubborn, tough talent who’s got a lot to learn about baseball, but more importantly, about life. Like the main character from, you know, everything.
- The sharp-tongued agent: Ali Larter plays Amelia, a shark in Theory separates. She gave up Clooney to rep Ginny. That’s right: She’s so close with him, she blew right past first-name basis and looped around to last-name basis.
- The grizzled skipper: I, too, would yell “Get me the dad from The Wonder Years!” if I were to ever write a beleaguered coach character. The difference is that when Dan Fogelman yells it, Dan Lauria answers and, as Al, does his grumbly, put-upon thing.
- The playboy fan favorite: Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s star catcher, Mike, preens and preaches and happily cozies up to groupies in bars — in other words, he’s more AC Slater here than Zach Morris.
- The buddy with a history: Ginny’s married minor-league comrade Blip (Mo McRae) might be more than a clubhouse pal. We get a hint of trouble to come when another teammate snaps at Blip, “Why do I get the feeling you’ve tapped that ass?” Blip responds by tackling him, which is probably more trouble than you’d go to if the answer was, “I have not — whatever gave you that idea?”
- The front-office suit: As Oscar, Mark Consuelos is a guy with a good heart but a thousand-dollar haircut. At some point, almost definitely, someone will tell him baseball is a game and he will quietly respond with, “It’s a business.”
- And, course, there’s Joe Buck: This being FOX, Joe Buck appears in the pilot several times, confirming the network’s 7,000-year blood contract to put him front and center in all primetime sporting coverage does, in fact, extend to sporting events that aren’t real. John Smoltz is also present, mostly doing that goateed-grimace thing you remember from Topps of yore.
Is that enough baseball-movie magic for you? No? Well, good, because there’s more (much more) in the form of Ginny’s backstory. Her dad — sorry, her pop, all sports-movie dads must be named Pop by law — taught Ginny to pitch in the backyard. She perfected the delicate grip of her famous screwball by tossing hundreds of nectarines (hence the fruit baskets). Every time Ginny won a big game growing up, she’d say “We did it, Pops,” and he’d grumble from under his mustache, “We ain’t done nothin’ yet.” Thousands cheer their lungs out as Ginny takes the mound at Petco Park, but in the stands, Pops is silent and stone-faced.
NEXT: Ginny’s wild night
It’s all a bit much, really, even for those of us who tear up just seeing a listing for Rudy on the programming guide. But then, just in time, Pitch grounds itself: Ginny shows up for her first game and blows it — terribly, spectacularly, even Bill-Buckner-feels-bad-for-you blows it. She throws wild pitch after wild pitch before asking to be pulled from the game. It’s her personal nightmare and the Padres’ worst PR fear. After all, as we’ve been reminded every 10 seconds, the whole world is watching. (The whole world is watching FS1? Doesn’t this historic moment deserve some primetime network coverage?)
Ginny’s hardcore fail turns the episode from indulgent to respectable. What seemed to be a story about a female pitcher’s first game is really a story about her second game. It’s about Ginny getting back up, Lawson getting onboard, and the Padres getting invested in Ginny as more than just a publicity stunt. The run-up to her next outing is skeptical; in maybe the most honest moment of the whole pilot, Colin Cowherd says this about Ginny getting another chance: “I don’t know, what does it show? That if you can’t throw the ball over the plate but you’re really pretty, you can pitch in the big leagues?”
Ginny’s second start begins a lot like the first one — frighteningly out of the strike zone — but after a do-it-for-yourself pep talk from Lawson, she calms down. She doesn’t throw a no-hitter or break any records. She puts up a solid performance, then turns the game over to the bullpen. It seems, for a moment, that Pitch has gotten all the turmoil out of its system.
Then we get one more flashback glimpse at Ginny and Pop. (If you are casually reading this without having seen Pitch but are planning to watch it, make like a fastball somebody turned on and get outta here, way outta here.) Driving home from a state-championship game sometime in the past, Ginny and Pops are in a head-on collision. Only Ginny walks away. That’s right: Pops is dead. He was dead all along. Even in full -n movie-fan mode, I never saw it coming — I was too busy thinking this was Rookie of the Year to realize it’s also The Sixth Sense.
This, right here, is the make-or-break moment for your DVR, the moment you have to decide if you’re committing to this ride. It confirms what you’re signing up for if you sign up to watch Pitch: unapologetic drama spun from the unapologetically dramatic sport that is baseball. If you’re the kind of person who likes to fact-check Empire, Pitch might not be for you. You’ve got to put your reality nit-picking aside, the way I had to when Ginny celebrated her successful second outing. As she left the field, she tipped her cap to the crowd, waving it high in the air and shaking out her hair with Beyoncé-like swag. A rookie who just came off a world-famous bad start, showboating like that over five measly strikeouts? Not a chance, I thought. But then I took a step back, watched a girl descend into the dugout, and reminded myself that Pitch isn’t about how things are. It’s about how things could be.
Are you picking up what Pitch is throwing down? What do you think of Bunbury’s performance? Can the show keep up its grand sports-movie vibe? And did anyone see that twist coming?