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We’re With Her

‘Pitch’ can’t actually put a woman in the majors, but for all the girls and women already succeeding in baseball, it can jump-start dreams

Fox
Fox

By the time Ginny Baker takes the mound for a fictionalized version of the San Diego Padres in Pitch, a new Fox drama, she’s racked up comparisons to quite the variety of U.S. icons: Jackie Robinson, Hillary Clinton, and Kim Kardashian. As a stadium jam-packed with fans, many of them young girls, awaits the first-ever major league debut by a woman, it’s hard not to think of another set of girls watching intently: the ones at home.

For young, female athletes who have their skills doubted by male peers, coaches, and communities, the show, which premiered last Thursday, validates what they already know to be true: that girls and women can succeed at the highest levels of baseball. In fact, they already do. It’s neither new nor rare to see women thriving in organized baseball, starting with when they took up the sport in the 1860s at the Seven Sisters colleges. In the 1940s and ’50s, more than 600 women played in the all-women baseball league famously chronicled in A League of Their Own. Three black women joined the Negro Leagues in the ’50s. The U.S. women’s national team, started in 2004, has found success in international tournaments. Mo’ne Davis is one of many girls to excel in Little League. This summer, Kelsie Whitmore and Stacy Piagno made the Sonoma Stompers, a team in the independent Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, the first coed professional baseball team since the days of the Negro Leagues.

“All of my girls would love to play baseball in the major leagues,” says Ava Benach, who coaches the DC Force, an all-girls baseball team. “They all think that they can do it, despite the fact that there’s never been anybody to do it. This makes it a little more real for them.”

Like the rest of Benach’s players, Harper Dunn, a 12-year-old who plays third base for the Force, couldn’t wait to watch Ginny (Kylie Bunbury) in the Pitch premiere. “I didn’t think that they’d make a TV show about a girl who played baseball,” says Dunn, who fell for the game at age 5. Despite what some publications might have you believe, sports enthusiasts and girls aren’t mutually exclusive groups, and Dunn and her teammates represent the young athletes that cocreators Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer want tuning into the drama, which brought in just 4.3 million viewers for its premiere episode.

The show’s attention to detail is, in part, what the creators hope helps Ginny’s story feel real to young girls. Much has been made of Pitch’s authenticity, made possible by extensive cooperation from MLB and Fox: Ginny’s Padres play at the real Petco Park, former major leaguer Gregg Olson is Bunbury’s off-screen pitching coach, and Joe Buck is a familiarly irritating presence in the broadcast booth. And, in an age when activists and critics discuss the importance of diversity both in front of and behind the camera, it helps that Pitch’s nine-person writers’ room is racially diverse and includes multiple women. The creators also sought baseball expertise from Molly Knight, who wrote a book chronicling two pivotal years in the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse.

“We’re excited about the prospect of young girls watching a show under the heading of ‘seeing is believing,’ and being able to visualize something certainly lends itself to becoming a reality,” says Singer, who also serves as an executive producer on the show. “We don’t think that it’s at all preposterous for someone to see this, recognize it as something they want to do, and set it as a genuine goal.”

Through the three episodes Fox has screened so far, both the show’s storytelling and point of view are promising. Pitch doesn’t shy away from addressing the ups and downs of being a woman in the spotlight or let Ginny off the hook as a role model, particularly in Episode 2, as she struggles with how to react to another female athlete’s sexual assault. Watching her build positive relationships with teammates, coaches, and the media while staying true to her own personality and beliefs is a compelling through line that nicely ties together the mounting box scores and clubhouse quips. There are hints of Friday Night Lights, as life itself is almost immediately more important than the sport at hand, and Orange Is the New Black, as regular flashbacks flesh out Ginny’s story (along with at least one more character’s by season’s end, Singer hints) and choice scenes cultivate empathy for characters that aren’t inherently likable.

Pitch isn’t perfect. There’s a soap-opera quality to it that feels more overbearing than that of Friday Night Lights — perhaps as a sexist play to what Fox executives may think female viewers need to tune in. The pilot ends with a Sixth Sense–esque reveal that Ginny’s father, her biggest supporter, has been dead for much of her journey to the majors. Her interactions with teammates are played mostly for laughs, but they too are a bit of a stretch. In a matter of days, team captain and aging superstar catcher Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) goes from giving Ginny a demeaning ass slap (which she returns in the same scene) to an Oscar-worthy, in-game pump-up speech that gets her throwing strikes.

In real life, meetings between female players and their male teammates don’t always go so poorly. “There was not one guy on the team that we just could not stand, that just hated us,” Whitmore, a pitcher and outfielder, said on The Ringer MLB Show last week when discussing her summer with the predominantly male Sonoma Stompers. Fellow Stomper Piagno, a pitcher and infielder, echoed the sentiment.

Their U.S. women’s national baseball teammate Malaika Underwood, who plays first base, says she recognizes the show must exaggerate tension to play up drama. Ginny pulls herself from her humiliating first start after 10 pitches — some of them wild, all of them balls — because the pressure got to her. “I think had she gotten to that point in her career, she would’ve earned it and she would’ve been in high-pressure situations way before that,” Underwood says. “It’s hard for me to believe she would’ve taken herself out of the game like that.”

Ginny, who settles down in her second start and notches her first win, tops out in the high 80s (Bunbury herself can hit 60 mph). In a male-dominated league, though, her fastball isn’t enough of a threat to be her main pitch. Her go-to is the screwball, a trick pitch that’s fallen out of fashion. Singer says the writers landed on that offering because their other leading option, the knuckleball, wouldn’t have required her to display the same strength and velocity to master, but Benach thinks there were other possibilities.

“I don’t know why she couldn’t have a devastating curve,” Benach says. “Even the name ‘screwball,’ if you say someone’s a screwball, as an individual, it means they’re odd and freakish. I think that was a bad editorial decision.”

“One of the things that I hope the Fox show does is generate some conversation around the fact that [women in baseball are] not a flash in the pan,” says Underwood, a 10-year Team USA veteran. She, like everyone else interviewed for this story, thinks women will break into Major League Baseball sooner or later. Jennifer Ring, who teaches the politics of sports at University of Nevada, Reno, says there are better questions to wonder about than when a real-life Ginny will break the gender barrier in the majors. “Why don’t we let them play any baseball?” asks Ring, who has written two books about female ballplayers. “How can we expect to develop a woman good enough to play Major League Baseball if it’s not encouraged or nurtured in the U.S.?”

Fox
Fox

More than 100,000 U.S. girls play youth baseball. At the high school level, that number shrinks to just 1,000, according to Baseball For All, a nonprofit that encourages girls to get in the game. There are several reasons for the precipitous drop: Some girls stop to focus on sports that could net them college scholarships. Benach says others may follow suit after a female player quits a team of predominantly boys, not wanting to be alone on an all-male squad. Still others take up softball because that’s what’s offered to them and also what’s expected of them. Dunn, the 12-year-old DC Force player, anticipates making the switch in high school, even though she prefers baseball.

“I think that all of the kind of groundswell and grassroots girls’ baseball movement is not going to go anywhere until there’s a place for them to go,” Ring says. “And that would be more serious, competitive baseball, when the girls that are good and love the game and want to go places with it aren’t told, ‘You have to play softball.’”

In the absence of an established pipeline making it easier and more common for girls to play baseball in high school, college, and beyond, perhaps even in an WNBA-like professional league, the Ginny Bakers that push through — who in real life come from families who believe in them and have the time and financial resources to devote to advantages like equipment and travel — will continue to look like freakish outliers, rather than indicators of how well girls and women, in general, are capable of playing if given the same opportunities as boys and men. While Pitch can’t address — or solve — all of those problems, it’s still an exciting look at what’s to come for the sport. One woman in the majors isn’t an ambitious enough end goal for baseball, even in fiction, but the show still depicts a giant step forward, thanks to a story line that has the potential to jump-start girls’ dreams.

“It can’t do any harm,” Ring says. “It’ll get another generation at least thinking that it’s possible. Then it’s up to us as a nation to build it. They will come.”