A Lot of Coaching, a Little Ribbing

Screenwriter-director Devra Ma-za is working on her next film, "Spotting Hitch." She has written about film and baseball for The Times

It was a beautiful spring day in Los Angeles, but I was frantic. I was on the road, late for a date with the chance of a lifetime. As I drove, desperate not to blow it, I was suddenly slowed by the sound of a motorcycle cop's siren. I hate that sound. "Well, young lady," smirked the officer, like a hunter who'd just bagged a big one, "where're you headed, and why the hurry?"

I told him. "I've got to get to Dodger Stadium because the Braves are letting me pitch."

I was hoping for some sympathy and a police escort. What I got was an offended "Do I look stupid?" and a speeding ticket. The funny part was, I was telling the truth.

I was researching my latest screenplay, a romantic comedy called "The Show," about the first female to play major league baseball. Though Stevie Dumar, my script's leading lady, who breaks baseball's gender barrier, plays second base, I felt I had to refine my knowledge of all aspects of the game to write her and her teammates. In addition to emotional range and comedic timing, the actress who plays Stevie will have to have the presence to stand tall on a field of major league men, and the grace to make the athletic demands of the sport look realistic on film.

But first I had to make it look realistic on paper--and for that I needed to see behind the scenes. Enter the Dodgers.

Having a home in the movie capital of the world makes the Dodgers' hierarchy uniquely savvy to my needs. It helps that Dodger director of publicity Derrick Hall views baseball as "part of the entertainment community" and understands the research a film requires. After film studio executives verify my status as a screenwriter with produced credits writing a legitimate spec script, I am afforded full access. So for a season I got to play with the big boys of baseball until I was a player myself.

My first glimpse inside the game comes courtesy of the Dodgers' elegant general counsel, Sam Fernandez. As we tour the stadium, I can hear the sound of baseballs being hit in batting practice. I love that sound. It's an awesome feeling, stepping onto the diamond for the first time, with its vibrant colors that paint America's pastime--the green, trimmed grass, the brown dirt studded with white bases at every corner of its perfect symmetry.

In the tunnel to the locker room, Fernandez asks me to wait while he checks to see if it's all right to bring me inside. I assume he's making sure everyone's dressed. I assume wrong. As we enter, the first thing I see is a player standing at his locker wearing nothing but a smile, and it isn't on his face. I walk into a wall. When I regain my sense of direction, I notice the bathroom and shower rooms have no doors, something Stevie, who first breaks into the majors incognito, will have to deal with.

Fernandez delivers me safely to the visitors' dugout, where the team in town is the Atlanta Braves. Their PR guy, Glen Serra, is ready for me: Want to learn grips for all the pitches? Here's the winningest left-hander of the decade, Tom Glavine. Want to know how to get a jump on a grounder? Second baseman Keith Lockhart can tell you. Want to talk pitching philosophy? How about four-time Cy Young Award-winner Greg Maddux?

Maddux has just thrown a "side session" in the bullpen to work on his pitching between starts. His platinum arm's encased in an Ace wrap of crushed ice, like some rare, high-priced soft drink. He asks me what my screenplay's about.

"It's about the first female in major league baseball," I tell him.

"Oh, so it's a fantasy," quips Maddux.

"Yeah," I smile back. "It's my fantasy. And you'll have to pay 8 bucks to see it."

Screenwriting, after all, is just fantasizing on paper. Like many kids, I dreamed of playing professional baseball, but the gene pool precluded that reality. The closest I got was playing second base in a coed softball league. Imagining myself playing significantly better in the big leagues and the reactions to my being a woman there is how "The Show"' was born.

*

As I work through several drafts, I return to Dodger Stadium and Edison Field--the Angels also opened their ballpark to me--to gain knowledge from the various teams passing through. I talk hitting with Padres batting champ Tony Gwynn and take batting practice with the Cubs and Tigers. I learn lingo from the Braves colorful coach Bobby Dews and "turn two" with the Indians Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel, the best double-play combo on the planet. I take photos of the Dodgers' closer Jeff Shaw's hand holding a ball showing every pitch.

Even players I don't approach offer assistance and suggestions: "Are there strippers in it?" "What about prayer chapel?" I contemplate adding a scene of strippers at chapel, but it just doesn't fit in the story line.

I get a taste of the media scrutiny a woman in baseball might be subjected to, when the Cardinals come to town. I'm sitting alone on their bench with right-handed pitcher Matt Morris. He's showing me the fresh surgical scars on his arm--a hazard of his hard-throwing trade--when home-run king Mark McGwire enters. Suddenly, a swarm of what seems like every sports reporter and photographer in the free world descends into the dugout. A video camera skims my head. In an instant, Morris' hand shoots out to tap the cameraman, alerting him to my presence: "Hey! Person here."

The cameraman apologizes and goes back to stalking McGwire, who wades through the sea of media like an original Olympian swimming against the tide. I'm impressed with Morris. He's quick, he's chivalrous, and he used his left hand. I ask him how he'd feel about having a woman on his team.

"Great," he says. "It would take some of the heat off Big Mac--as long as she can help us win."

And women have proven they can--and people will pay to see it--which seems to make the timing for "The Show" just right. The U.S. women's soccer team draws more screaming teens than Leonardo DiCaprio. The WNBA thrives with very tall talent. Even the Ali, Frazier and Foreman now entering the ring are the daughters of those famed pugilists. If women can box, they can certainly bunt.

And they can certainly play second base. It's a position that traditionally values speed over size and hitting for average over power. It requires the shortest throw to first on the field and provides a rear view of the pitcher, something Stevie can't help but notice when her team's ace, Gabe Mavin, is on the mound. The fact that he's opposed to women in baseball doesn't keep her from admiring that view.

Writing the baseball technicalities of their love story requires specifics, such as for a scene in which Gabe impresses Stevie by predicting a foul ball. I ask Orioles ace Mike Mussina what circumstances might cause a ball to be hit back to the bench.

"Which seat?" he asks, then proceeds to give me various combinations of pitchers, pitches and batters, resulting in foul balls hitting up and down the dugout. Unfortunately, the scene doesn't make the final draft. But if I'm ever sitting behind the first base dugout with a left-handed pitcher throwing a heater on a one-ball, two-strike count to a right-handed batter who's trying to pull when the catcher is setting up outside, I'll be sure and yell, "Heads up!"

It's one thing to talk pitching, and another to put your mechanics where your mouth is. I get the chance when Braves skipper Bobby Cox grants me the rare privilege of a lesson in full uniform with pitching coach Leo Mazzone. When I arrive at the ballpark, I find that my uniform bears No. 4, which I requested in honor of my father, whose favorite player, Lou Gehrig, first wore it. It inspires a scene for "The Show" in which Stevie gets a sign from above in the form of her father's number on a jersey.

In the Braves' bullpen, it's all business. My battery mate is Eddie Perez, Maddux's personal catcher and last season's National League Championship Series MVP. He's a great target, and Leo's a great teacher. I throw a variety of pitches: fastball, sinker, change-up, curveball and something intended to be a slider. I work from both the windup and stretch, and only have one wild pitch (which I still contend would have been ruled a passed ball, since Eddie made no move to catch it). All the while, Leo's myriad adjustments to my every muscle make each pitch better than the last: "Take smaller steps--don't hold the ball so tight--you're flying open, cross over more."

When it's over, Leo signs his book "Pitch Like a Pro" to me with the playful inscription: "Great mechanics--Your velocity needs work, but your form's outstanding!"

The remainder of my day in uniform is spent on the field and in the dugout, gauging the double takes of perplexed players and confused fans funneling in. A few Braves plot a practical joke on a rookie reliever. The plan is to tell him he's been sent down to the minors and I've been called up to take his place, but word of my identity has spread. Eventually the clock strikes game time, and I turn back into a screenwriter.

The next day, some of the Braves inquire after my arm. The post-pitching ice helped. I should have sat in it. Sixty pitches of pushing off the mound's rubber results in a weeklong butt-soreness that makes sitting through traffic school even more uncomfortable than usual.

*

My treatment by the Braves is typical of many major leaguers I meet: They're perfect gentlemen. Damn. How am I supposed to develop an ear for realistic baseball banter if they won't cuss within a mile of me? (Lingo alert: Baseball players never curse, they cuss.)

Classy superstars like Boston's Pedro Martinez, the game's most dominating pitcher, pulls his chair out for me at his locker and won't sit unless I do. Then there's Anaheim slugger Mo Vaughn, who has the soul of Buddha in the body of a bouncer. We discuss charity and team leadership, then he pummels pitches past the faux-rock formation that lies beyond the Angels' outfield.

Still, any woman mixing with jocks on road trips is bound to encounter a range of reactions. The most extreme comes as I pass through a clubhouse where one player actually tries to lick my face. I evade him by swerving away (an ingrained female instinct that develops at puberty, like breasts). I'm thrilled to think that my reflexes are so much faster than the infielder whose defensive gems make him a highlight reel regular, until I realize he is being held back by a teammate who smacks him in the head with a "knock it off!" reprimand.

Others grab them both, taking sides. It's chaos. As I leave, I look back at the surreal sight of an entire team suddenly fighting itself--all because a woman walked by. What if Stevie was on that team?

While society has evolved to allow female reporters and live cameras in the locker rooms, the game has made no adjustments for players' privacy, and some admit their discomfort. After I get everything I need in the locker rooms for the script, I make it a policy not to go inside, but rather request players through their PR guys. It seems to be appreciated. Most of them come out. Some even get dressed.

But what to do when the PR guy's a woman? Such is the case with Leigh Tobin of the Phillies whose finely honed skills of "tunnel vision" and "knowing when to backpedal" win her respect. Her success gives a glimpse of how a woman might survive the minefield of an unclad all-male clubhouse.

Her team's ace, fireballer Curt Schilling (since traded to the Diamondbacks), is a master of strategy and becomes a wonderful resource as I plot the script's games. He shares tips on times when runners steal on pitchers and pitchers throw at batters. The ultimate goal is for players to see "The Show" and say, "Yeah, that's my world," even as they laugh themselves silly.

Near the end of the season, Associated Press reporter Joe Resnick invites me to play in the Dodgers' media game in which reporters face off on the field. The day of the game, I drive very slowly to the ballpark. Brent Shyer, one of the Dodger's top PR men, greets me at the entrance to the team's auxiliary clubhouse, where inside the gentlemen of the press laugh as they dress. I'm presented with a uniform. It's No. 4--my dad's number, Gehrig's number, the one I pitched in with the Braves back when the season began. Life imitating art imitating life.

Brent informs me my locker will be the Dodgers' weight room bathroom. As I head off for the luxury of my own shower, I feel both appreciative of the privacy and a sense of isolation as the laughter of my male teammates grows fainter. On the field, I learn the opposing media team also has a woman on its roster, Lisa Guerrero of Fox Sports West. The media covering the media want to know who we are. I tell them, "We're the designated chicks," and we both get hits.

But the capper for the day comes later, with the Braves back in town. Maddux sees me in the dugout and calls over a greeting of "Hey, Movie Girl." A nickname! Cool. I realize he probably just doesn't remember my name, but I like it anyway, and it catches on. When naming my script's ace, I return the favor, crashing the last names of Maddux and Glavine together to make Mavin, which happens to be the Yiddish word for "expert." I figure with the combined karma of six Cy Young Awards to his name, he's got to be good. Other players express interest in appearing in "The Show," and I'm happy to write them in.

When the Braves make their only trip to L.A. this season, I notice a new second baseman wears my No. 4. I can't believe they didn't retire it, but I have more pressing concerns. With the screenplay finished, it is now time to attach talent, and I need to make sure the baseball parts are accurate.

Luckily, Mike Remlinger one of the game's most reliable relievers and articulate players, gets the save as he agrees to read and curls up with my script at the end of the dugout. Occasionally, I ask him what he's up to, and he blurts out plot points such as "the trainer's trying to examine Stevie's chest." Naturally he gets razzed, but he courageously reads on and catches only a few minor technicalities.

All my research has paid off. Only two seasons ago, I couldn't tell a sinker from a slider. Now I know when the broadcasters are calling them wrong. I also know that baseball is an inclusive sport, reflective of our diverse humanity, where players can be 6 feet 5 or 5 feet 6, and you can have a Silly Putty body if your arm's kissed by God.

I recently found myself back at Dodger Stadium, sitting in the visitors' dugout, wearing spikes and a glove, the only woman on a bench of men playing at baseball's highest level. I had just gotten a fielding lesson from Phillies veteran second baseman Mickey Morandini with an eye toward choreographing Stevie's defensive plays. His teammates were intrigued. Morandini (who has since joined the Blue Jays) explained that I had just written a movie about the first female in the majors, then added, "I've got a shower scene with the star." We leaned forward to see if his teammates were buying it, but they were already busy speculating about which actress could play the lead.

As am I. The search has yet to begin for the actress who will fill Stevie's spikes. Whoever she is, the actress who plays her will be coached by the best players in the world. She'll learn how to hit, field and win against all odds. She will look like she belongs. She may even become good. But there's one thing I can guarantee her for certain: She's going to have the time of her life. *

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°