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Playing Ballplayers at the Big A : Crew of New Fox Series Takes Abandoned Field

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It may just be the biggest baseball crowd Anaheim Stadium will see the rest of this season.

In spite of the 6-day-old strike by major league baseball players, about 100 people caught a glimpse of the national pastime Wednesday at the Big A. Of course, the “fans” were paid to show up--and the baseball game they were watching was all a fantasy.

The folks in the stands were Hollywood extras earning about $65 each for their background roles as baseball fans in Fox Television’s new sports sitcom “Hardball.” The cast and crew used Anaheim Stadium to film episodes for the new half-hour comedy series, which premieres Sept. 4.

Under the hot afternoon sun, extras watched as the show’s fictional team called the Pioneers threw some pitches and swung a few bats.

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“We didn’t think we’d see any baseball, but here we are,” said Toni Reed, 32, a TV extra from Long Beach. “I’m a closet Angels fan because they never seem to be doing that well.”

“I’m bummed there’s a strike,” she added. “I hope it ends soon.”

According to the show’s story line, the Pioneers not only wear uniforms similar to the California Angels’, but they also play like them. The team is struggling, about five games below a .500 record.

“It’s a team with a great deal of talent,” said actor Dann Florek, who plays the new hard-nosed team manager. “But they have no direction.”

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Filming at Anaheim Stadium is a key to the show’s success, said the producers of “Hardball.” Historically, baseball sitcoms have struck out with television audiences. But the producers feel the $10,000 they shelled out to rent the stadium for the one-day shoot will pay off in viewership.

“We wanted to make sure we are getting the actual look and feel of baseball,” said executive producer Kevin Curran, who wrote for five years for “Late Night with David Letterman.”

Anaheim Stadium may have seen more actors than baseball players lately. Fox Broadcasting Co. recently shot scenes there for the TV movie “The O.J. Simpson Story.”

Curran said that in addition to a realistic setting, he wants “people who you can believe are athletes and not just a bunch of actors on a sound stage.”

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“It’s a sitcom without a couch,” Curran added.

Television’s creative process can sometimes be a mystery to those outside the industry. But the spark of innovation that put this show on the air is easily explained, said executive producer Jeff Martin.

“Fox wanted something after football,” said Martin, who has written for “The Simpsons” and played Flunky the Clown on the old Letterman show. “They told us they wanted a baseball show.”

For actor Mike Starr, “Hardball” represented a step up in his fictional major league sports career. In the film “The Natural,” which starred Robert Redford as an aged rookie, Starr portrayed a backup bullpen catcher. But on the new show, his character is the starting catcher and a team leader.

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“He’s got his injuries and a little more weight than his rookie season,” said Starr about his character. “But he still knows all the pitches.”

For actor Charles Cyphers, the show will be a quick foray into baseball. Cyphers plays the team’s first manager who gets fired in the opening episode.

“I’m a meat-and-potatoes actor. I go to work and do my stuff,” said Cyphers, who would say only that he is in his 50s. “I’m not into ego.

“They may bring him back anyway, you never know,” added Cyphers, who also has a recurring role as a drunk cop in another Fox sitcom.

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Had the show debuted earlier, would the realism of the show extend so far as to have the Pioneers go out on strike?

“Baseball players have taken a bit of the shaft,” Florek said. “I think the salary cap is wrong. Yeah, I think this team (Pioneers) would walk.”

But Starr wasn’t so sure about the moral direction of his fictional team.

“This is a TV show, this isn’t real,” he said. The character he plays wouldn’t “really get involved in issues like that.”

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Wednesday’s filming was real enough for stadium usher Lynn Lonn, who was just happy to be working again. Lonn said he will lose as much as $1,000 because of the players’ strike if they sit out the rest of the season.

“This is the only job I have right now,” said Lonn, 42, of Anaheim. “This strike is really tough on me.”


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