As a self-described baseball geek, writer-producer Dan Fogelman was eager to take on "Pitch," Fox's new drama about the first woman to become a major league player.
But he had one big concern.
"I said, 'If we don't get Major League Baseball to sign on as partners, I don't think we can do the show,'" he said in a recent interview from his office on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. "I didn't want to do a series about a fictional baseball team."
Real team uniforms, logos and stadiums were needed to sell viewers on the concept of a woman breaking the gender barrier in a male sport. Before Fogelman made the pilot for the series that premieres Thursday, he flew to New York to pitch Major League Baseball (MLB) executives, particularly commissioner Rob Manfred, on "Pitch."
Fogelman went into the meeting knowing professional sports leagues can be protective when it comes to their portrayals in movies and TV shows. ESPN in 2003 had ratings success with the scripted series "Playmakers," which showed professional football players engaging in off-the-field debauchery. The NFL took offense even though fictional teams were used, and ESPN, an NFL broadcast rights holder, dropped the program after one season.
More recently, the NFL has reportedly expressed its displeasure over its players appearing as themselves on HBO's raunchy, sports-themed comedy "Ballers."
Fogelman made it clear to MLB that he was not looking to pull the curtain back on the national pastime. But for "Pitch" to work, it needed to realistically explore the business machinations the league would encounter if faced with a Jackie Robinson-like breakthrough in the age of social media. There had to be tension in the clubhouse and the front office suite at Petco Park, where Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) makes her debut as a starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres.
The approach did not scare off Major League Baseball which has enacted efforts to make the game more inclusive. Girls are now participating in MLB's youth tournaments and competitions. The league last year also put Melissa Mayeux, a member of the French national baseball team, on its international registry, making her eligible for be drafted by a North American franchise.
"The story is very authentic in terms of every team's goal to identify the best talent out there and put the best talent on the field," said Chris Tully, executive vice president-media for Major League Baseball.
MLB's primary concern was that if the trademarks and ballparks were used in "Pitch," the action on the field had to look real.
As for the depictions of clubhouse life, Tully said it's something leagues no longer shy away from.
"Fans have been demanding access," said Tully. "Exposing fans to the reality of baseball is something we've embraced."
All of the players and Padres employees portrayed on "Pitch" are fictional.
With Major League Baseball on board, "Pitch" moved forward and the producers collaborated with Fox Sports, which carries baseball telecasts. The division is making its announcers and on-screen graphics available to help tell the stories of Ginny Baker's successes and failures on the field as if fans are watching an actual game.
"We film through the same camera angles and camera lenses and positions that Fox would use in a baseball game," Fogelman said. "The only thing that is different is that there is a woman on the mound."
Retired players including former Los Angeles Dodgers Chad Kreuter and Gregg Olson, and St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Royce Clayton were hired to help the actors polish their moves on the field. Olson, a relief pitcher for 14 seasons, worked closely with Bunbury, reviewing video of her throwing motion and to show where she can make refinements. He also instructed her on how players react in certain situations, such as her first major league appearance, the pivotal moment of the first episode.
"You're in tunnel vision," he told her. "Every one of your dreams have been matched. You're in a state of shock. Fiddle with the rosin bag a little bit. Spike it on the mound."
Bunbury is also learning how to hit, as Ginny plays in the National League where pitchers come to the plate — and in a future episode will find herself in a beanball war.
Fogelman and co-creator Rick Singer were also determined that "Pitch" not be a fantasy about a female breaking into the league and whiffing hitters. Although she's a gifted athlete, Ginny Baker has to toil her way onto the Padres with a trick pitch, the screwball, which breaks in on hitters when it reaches the plate. Perhaps its best-known user was former Dodgers star Fernando Valenzuela.
"What's really fun for us is that [Ginny's story] is not cut and dried," Singer said. "She's a fifth starter and she's got borderline stuff. We went out of our way to make sure the back story made sense. It's understood she's not throwing 95 miles an hour or 98. How does somebody who throws 78 miles an hour make the majors? She's taking a guy's spot in the starting rotation who obviously feels strongly that he deserves that spot over her. There are a lot of other people in that clubhouse who feel the same way, that very cynically, this is about ticket sales. It's up to her, as she has every step of the way in her minor league career, to go after the naysayers and prove them wrong."
The pilot episode shows Ginny Baker living in the Omni Hotel next to Petco Park, reinforcing the notion that her historic major league call-up can end at any moment. (The Padres were selected because the producers believed her emergence would be more likely on a team that is not a perennial post-season contender.)
Singer said the show has agreed with MLB's wishes to stay away from potentially sticky topics as gambling, performance enhancing drugs and domestic violence. But writers have had free rein to delve into other aspects of the game, informed by notes from the league which looks over every script.
A future episode tells how Ginny Baker's worldwide celebrity leads to a league-led effort to have her named to the National League All-Star team despite her middling performance on the field. Singer said was surprised to learn that MLB actually does support efforts to get its young stars selected for the game.
Another story deals will deal with the tension that players feel when the trade deadline approaches and they face the prospects of uprooting families and leaving teammates. "Baseball and professional sports in general has this kind of 'Game of Thrones' element to it where you have no control when you can leave the show," Fogelman said.
So far, the on-field action on "Pitch" has been shot at Petco Park and Dodger Stadium. If "Pitch" is a hit, Fogelman is hoping the show can go on the road and visit iconic baseball parks such as Wrigley Field in Chicago, AT&T Park in San Francisco, Fenway Park in Boston and Yankee Stadium in New York.
For Fogelman, a New Jersey native and life-long rabid fan of the New York Mets, the production has been a kid-in-the-candy-store experience, especially on days when Petco Park serves as his office. But the intensity of the production schedule – he's juggling his "Pitch" duties with with another series, "This Is Us" on NBC — requires him to occasionally take a moment to make sure he enjoys it.
"Sometimes you have to try and stop yourself when you're getting access to something cool," Fogelman said. "Otherwise you're just going to roll past the coolest moment of your life without realizing it."