Monday, January 22, 2018
Sports

here's the windup

She has a pitching coach. She's on a strict pitch count. And she's in a lot of pain after a day of throwing.

"I'm definitely doing a lot of Epsom salt baths and wrapping my arm," Kylie Bunbury, the star of the new Fox drama Pitch, said while on a lunch break from taping at Petco Park in San Diego.

"Like a pro athlete, I'm aching in places I've never ached before."

Fox has done everything it can to make Bunbury, who plays the first woman to reach the big leagues, a plausible major-league pitcher. This includes having her learn how to, well, pitch.

But she's got plenty of support.

Major League Baseball has enthusiastically signed on to the project, providing what its executives describe as unprecedented access to a running TV show.

There are plenty of hurdles that Pitch, which debuts tonight, has to jump. Once the novelty wears off, how will it keep an audience? For a show that its creators have described as inspirational, how will it handle some unsavory parts of the game and a culture that can be insular and sexist? (Not to mention, how will MLB feel about the show's confronting those issues?) And how will it cater to the hard-core baseball fan expecting authenticity while still appealing to those who just want to watch a good drama?

Last year, Dan Fogelman, one of the show's creators, met with Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball. He had no desire to make Pitch without the league's approval — a fictional team was not going to work when verisimilitude was so important to the show's world.

"Their biggest ask was that we get the baseball right and that this feels authentic as possible and not amateurish," Fogelman said.

"If they're going to give essentially their likeness, they asked that we put MLB players on the project and consult with Fox Sports, so that we're not getting it wrong and it looks right."

In addition to a battery of former big-leaguers who are serving as advisers — the former reliever Gregg Olson is Bunbury's pitching coach — the league has given the show a team (the Padres), uniform rights and use of stadiums for shooting. Fox Sports, a longtime TV home for baseball and the sole broadcaster of the World Series since 2000, has deployed its own talent, with Joe Buck, John Smoltz, Katie Nolan and Colin Cowherd all getting regular cameos.

Bunbury's character, Ginny Baker, possesses a mediocre fastball but a fine screwball in an era when few pitchers throw one. (The screwball, which veers so off-course that some liken it to a Wiffle ball's movement, is a specialty pitch — like a knuckleball — and an equalizer: Though Baker lacks the ability to throw as hard as a man, it provides her a path to the majors.)

Baker is a fill-in rotation starter who, to the chagrin of some of her teammates, is getting love from the front office because of the adulation (and ticket sales) she can bring to a midmarket team. Her batterymate, the star catcher, is played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar .

Paris Barclay, one of the show's executive producers, said that the baseball element is a "dramatic Trojan horse."

"This show has something way bigger than baseball to say," he added, "and that's what women's role in society should be in the modern world."

The show's creators believe they are walking into a moment when female athletes — like Serena Williams, the members of the U.S. women's soccer team and the Little League star Mo'ne Davis — are more popular than ever.

And for what it's worth, Fogelman is convinced that he will see a professional women's baseball player in his lifetime.



Will a woman ever pitch in the big leagues?

Gregg Olson, the former All-Star closer who played for several major-league teams, has been the on-set pitching coach for Pitch star Kylie Bunbury.

He says the show's premise is plausible.

"If Serena Williams would have picked up a baseball at age 4 or 5 instead of a tennis racket, what do you think?" Olson asks.

"Is it 50-50 that she could throw 87-88 miles an hour? If she had done that, and developed the arm strength that all these major-league pitchers developed in years of pitching, as well as a gift from God, I'm not throwing it out. I don't know if she'd ever throw 98, but 87, 88? Yeah."

A few female players have already appeared in minor-league games.

The Sonoma Stompers, an independent team in California, got notice this season when they signed Kelsie Whitmore, a 17-year-old outfielder/pitcher, and Stacy Piagno, a 25-year-old pitcher/infielder.

At least two other female pitchers, Ila Borders (1997-2000) and Eri Yoshida (2010), have played pro baseball in U.S. independent leagues.

Bunbury, whose brother, Teal, plays for the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer, said she had never even played catch before being cast in Pitch.

The 27-year-old said that Olson has taught her well.

"If I can learn to pitch in two and a half months, think of a young girl who's built a certain way and plays her entire life and has an arsenal of pitches," Bunbury said.

"I mean, some knuckleballs are 60 miles an hour, and they strike people out. It's definitely possible. It's only a matter of time."

So how does the actual action portrayed on the field in Pitch look?

"It's as realistic as you'll see in a Hollywood production," writes Jason Foster in The Sporting News. "Which is to say, the action looks like real baseball action."

Foster has one technical issue that he says is not a deal-breaker for viewers.

"When Baker pitches," he says, "the trajectory and movement of the ball has a tendency to look fake-ish. Something looks off, like it doesn't match her arm motion."

But Foster does take issue with Baker's use of the screwball — saying it barely qualifies a "trick pitch."

"Fernando Valenzuela and others made a career out of it, as it's certainly a hard pitch to hit if done right, but it's a questionable one if you're looking to ... blaze a path to the majors," he writes.

"A more realistic meal-ticket pitch would be the knuckleball, a legitimate trick pitch, which seems a more likely equalizer that could baffle hitters enough to warrant big-league attention."

Contributing: AP, The Sporting News, Washington Post, New York Times.

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