If you’re missing baseball (and who isn’t?), Hulu may have an answer: Pitch, a 2016 Fox series that was cancelled after one season and 10 episodes. Pitch is the story of Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), a girl who grew up in North Carolina learning how to pitch from a father (Michael Beach), who never got out of the the minors. Ginny’s fastball tops off in the 80s, so she relies on a very tricky screwball. She is drafted out of high school by the San Diego Padres, and Pitch is the story of her call up to the majors. Most critics (see here, here, and here) describe it as an engaging sports story with a twist; Pitch is, I would argue, considerably more self-aware and subversive; it also goes terribly awry at the end.
Pitch was created by Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer (This Is Us) and features a gallery of sports staples: the world-wise agent Amelia (Ali Larter, who, like Ginny, is finding her way around MLB); the guru manager Al Luongo (Dan Lauria); the aging All Star catcher Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar); Ginny’s friend from the minors Blip Sanders (Mo McRae) and his wife, Evelyn (Meagan Holder); and the guy trying to make everything work, general manager Oscar Arguella (Mark Consuelos).
Ginny is given number 43, in recognition of the fact that she’s shattering the glass ceiling, and the storylines all seem fairly standard: She has to adjust to pitching in the majors while trying to navigate a clubhouse of male teammates who aren’t exactly thrilled to see her on the team. Actually, Fogelman and Singer pretty much resolve that issue in the first three episodes—they don’t appear to be terribly interested in matters of acceptance. Instead, they’re interested in relationships and gender politics: The ways in which women and men are treated differently in similar situations. In places, they explore the issues very well.
Pitch is not always adept in moving between foregrounding baseball and foregrounding drama—and it gets worse at the end of the series. I found that I wanted to watch this team play more because I’m compelled by the drama of a baseball game; Pitch tended toward character drama, which, at the end of the series, undercut its smart baseball commentary.
Fogelman and Singer like to shift between past and present, highlighting the ways in which where we’re from informs where we are now, even when those around us aren’t aware of our personal histories.
When Pitch does baseball, it mostly gets it right. Obviously, Fox is doing some cross-marketing with Fox Sports, but Pitch is filmed at Petco Park, and the look is terrific. Enhancing that is the appearance of Fox Sports personalities: Ken Rosenthal makes an early breaking-news appearance, Joe Buck, John Smoltz, Kevin Burkhardt, Jason Whitlock, Mike Krukow, Eric Byrnes, CJ Nitkowski, Dick Enberg—I could go on. Yes, it’s shameless promotion, but it also gives Ginny’s story a sense of authenticity that makes it more meaningful. And since this is a 10-episode television series, not a two-hour movie, Ginny’s story feels more permanent. As a character, she and her teammates have room to grow, in the same way that sports fans watch their teams grow over the course of a season.
There is also a Coors moment (Oscar tells new catcher, Livan Duarte, that his hot weekend doesn’t mean much since it happened in the “thin air” of Coors Field). Also, the Padres walk off the Rockies after Lawson hits an inside-the-park home run on two Rockies fielding errors. We’ve watched some pretty miserable Rockies field, but not that bad.
There’s a terrific scene when Lawson is trying out his skills as a commentator, his post-retirement future, he hopes, and lets fly a stream of sabermetrics. His fellow panelists look at him with horror as he realizes he needs to tone things down a bit. If you’re a baseball fan, though, you get the joke. It’s a line that Pitch navigates nicely.
Bayburn’s acting is excellent. She makes clear the pressure she feels, both as a child from her demanding father and later on a public stage where she is surrounded by little girls holding up signs that reinforce her status as a role model. That said, Bayburn’s pitching mechanics are less convincing, but she gets the attitude right, including a nice round of beanball. My favorite episode was “San Francisco,” which revolves around some old pictures of Ginny being hacked and is resolved with an unconventional exercise in team building.
Pitch has a diverse cast. Oscar is from Mexico, and Duarte has survived a harrowing escape from Cuba. Ginny is Black as are Blip and Evelyn at a time when baseball has fewer and fewer Black athletes, (According to the 2019 Major League Baseball Racial and Gender Report Card, in 2017, 7.7% of players on opening day rosters were African-American, down from a high of 18% in 1991.) They are reminders to MLB of the work they need to do.
Here’s the thing that most struck me. If you read much about baseball (or watch many movies), the narrative is often grounded in the stories of men trying to work out their identities through baseball. Sometimes, it’s about the relationship between sons and their fathers; sometimes, it’s about sons who are still trying to live out their fantasy of making it to the majors. (See Field of Dreams, The Natural, The Boys of Summer, Swing Kings, The MVP Machine—I could go on.) As a woman consuming those texts, I always find those moments jarring. It’s a reminder that I can never belong, that these men are sharing an experience unique to them. If a book is, say, a memoir, that connection makes sense; if it’s an objective work of nonfiction, that’s another matter.
For me, early-in-the-series Ginny Baker was refreshing because she subverted that trope. Ginny was a woman working out issues with her father and herself on the world’s biggest baseball stage—and she held her own. I felt like I had joined all those little girls holding up signs at Petco, not because Ginny set a goal I could aspire to but because she told a story I was desperate to hear.
That all gets undone in the last two episodes, which take a turn that undercuts Ginny’s integrity as a baseball player when Pitch becomes a fairly standard (and not especially well done) romance. That’s too bad. Ginny deserved better as do those of us looking for a different kind of baseball story.