By Nicholas McCann
SPOILER ALERT: There is a big plot point that is discussed in this piece. Please watch the episode before reading if you care about that kind of thing. Thanks.
The Pitch Padres also have the All Star Game. The Pitch Padres also need to sell tickets. This is made abundantly clear when the owner, played by Bob Balaban, stumbles into the GM’s office admittedly sloshed on expensive Scotch and explains that he is in the possession of a moment. Fox’s new sports drama, Pitch, is about a young female pitcher named Ginny Baker who has just made it to the Major Leagues as a Padre. She has a fastball that tops out at 86 mph, a devastating screwball, a million dollar smile, and all the baggage that comes with being a driven outsider in a world that is afraid to accept her. When we meet Baker, she wakes up in the Omni hotel to flowers from Ellen DeGeneres and a fruit ensemble from Hillary Clinton. She is hailed as the next Jackie Robinson and a symbol to all young girls. Like most TV pilots, the flaws are rooted in the accelerated distribution of information, but it doesn’t stop the story from being compelling. Sure, there is the sentimental narrative of the first female pitcher making it to The Show that the owner wants to capitalize on, but it doesn’t dwell on it. It doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince the viewer that this scenario that has never occurred, could happen. Ginny Baker is a real person who feels the pressure of entering the next phase of her career and that lets us confront other themes that prove to be exponentially more important.
In Saved By the Bell, Zack Morris could always stop time to break the fourth wall and talk to the audience about his schemes to get over on his classmates or his usually gullible principal. He would call a time out, look at the camera, and explain his position in the world. Eventually the actor who played Zack, Mark Paul Gosselaar, had to grow up and do other things, but it has always been hard for his fans to separate his breakout role from any of his other work. This is the same case in Pitch and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gosselaar is playing the same archetype, but over 20 years older. As Mike Lawson, the Padres veteran catcher and best player who is given the task of being a mentor in the middle of a media circus, he quickly establishes a pecking order for Baker to assimilate to. Imagine if Nick Hundley put up Adrian Gonzalez type numbers, had a beard, and crushed ass at a Steve Garvey level. Like with Zack Morris, the episode starts with him being a cocky narcissist. Then slowly we find out that he has something that resembles a heart of gold, a trope that is pervasive in most of the memorable Saved By The Bell storylines. It really works, and in the pivotal scene during Baker’s second start, Lawson calls time out and gives the struggling rookie a pep talk. Using the now aged Zack Morris charm he tells her that she needs to stop pitching for other people. She needs to let go and pitch for herself. When the game resumes, she displays the talent that got her to the big leagues.
Letting go is a common theme for lots of memorable fictional on-screen pitchers. In Major League, Rick “The Wild Thing” Vaughn has to get over his vanity and wear glasses. In For The Love of The Game, Kevin Costner sheds the demons of his past and decides to just pitch. And in A League of Their Own, Lori Petty’s character truly excels when she gets over the self imprisonment of being in her sister’s shadow. Ginny Baker feels the pressure of the moment she is giving to the world, but as the episode develops we discover that all that noise is just a supplement to the weight she feels from one person sitting in the stands. Her father was a pitcher himself and when Ginny was very young, he devised a plan to make her the first female pitcher to make it the major leagues. This is a crazy thing to do to a child and the show walks a fine line of treating it that way. Through a series of flashbacks this becomes clear and the entire focus of the show changes. When Ginny makes her first little league team, it’s not enough for him. When she wins the North Carolina State Championship, her father says, “We haven’t done anything yet.” Finally, when a scout from the Padres comes sniffing around, he is ice cold to her and doesn’t give her the satisfaction of recognizing the accomplishment. On the ride home from the state championship game, their car is struck by an oncoming car and her father is thrown through the wind shield. The audience is then forced to realize that this entire time Ginny has been pitching for a ghost. Baker can handle the flocks of young girls looking to her for inspiration. She can handle the media and her several troglodyte teammates. However, what she really needs is the approval of someone who can never give it to her. She is locked in a constant state of searching for the release she’s been wanting ever since she picked up a baseball.
I hope this show sticks to examining the way parents treat their young children who are starting their journey into the world of sports. Before the big reveal of her father’s death, she screams at him for not letting her have a life. This is a troubling reality that is hard to come to grips with when we look at our favorite athletes. What are they sacrificing to give us the moments that matter so much to us? What about the athletes who aren’t as successful as Ginny, that have their development obstructed by parents who have built an unrealistic blueprint in their minds? Baker is a strong character who can handle the doubts of Colin Cowherd or her teammates who don’t want their world to be shaken up, but for this show to work; her journey needs to be about finding peace within her self. It’s fun to see Petco Park sold out with an electricity that we’ve rarely experienced, but she hasn’t done anything yet and neither have we.
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