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Television

Review: Fox’s new ‘Pitch’ shows that a female player in the MLB is more than a gimmick

“Pitch”
Kylie Bunbury stars as Ginny Baker, Major League Baseball’s fictional first female player, in “Pitch.”
(Tommy Garcia / Fox)

Local temperatures may remain in the upper 80s, but the broadcast networks appear to be embracing their inner cozy as we head into fall.

Sure, “The Exorcist” is scuttling our way, but with all the new and unabashed family sentiment, (“Speechless,” “This Is Us”), reunions with old favorites (Kiefer Sutherland as president in “Designated Survivor, Ted Danson as an angel in “The Good Place”) and trips down Memory Lane (“MacGyver,” “Lethal Weapon”), the feel-good factor already seems exceptionally high.

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Not as high as it will be after the premiere of “Pitch,” however. The Fox drama, premiering Thursday, is not just about baseball, still America’s most sentimental sport. It imagines the first female player to join a major league team.

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Two years after Mo’ne Davis became the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series, television gives us Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) as she prepares to become a starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres and thereby enter history.

So, pretty much the definition of inspirational, aspirational television.

But don’t expect the amber-hued folksiness of “The Rookie.” With little to no, er, windup, creators Rick Singer and Dan Fogelman (who also created “This Is Us”) put Ginny, and the viewer, dead center in the pressure chamber of such a moment.

The series opens with Ginny, flanked by bodyguards and a super-intense agent (Ali Larter),  making her way to the clubhouse at Petco Park.

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There, behind the screaming crowds and little girls with “I’m Next!” signs, the marketing-driven excitement of the team’s owner (Bob Balaban) and general manager (Mark Consuelos) is equaled only by the this-is-just-a-gimmick resistance from its manager (Dan Lauria) and players.

Having made it this far in a man’s world, Ginny is neither surprised nor daunted. As an early exchange with the star catcher and team captain (a bearded but still adorable Mark-Paul Gosselaar) makes clear, she understands the subtext; she just wants to play.

Fortunately, she has at least two strong allies — outfielder Blip (Mo McRae) and his wife Evelyn (Meagan Holder).

She also has her father (Michael Beach), who taught her how to throw a screwball, the signature pitch that led her to the majors, and pushed her to greatness ever since she was a small child.

As she stands on the brink, it is natural that Ginny would remember the events that brought her there, which neatly allows for both presentation of a back story and a nice break from the present-day frenzy.

Major League Baseball lends a hand to ‘Pitch’ »

Major League Baseball is completely on base with “Pitch,” despite its apparent willingness to leverage some of the sport’s less-admirable aspects, which allows a nicely used smattering of real sportscasters to give the first hour, and one hopes, the series, a multimedia authenticity.

It also guarantees that this is the baseball of “The Natural” rather than “Moneyball” or “Eight Men Out,” which, given the subject matter and tone, is what the show seems to be shooting for anyway.

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Fortunately, the show’s greatest strength is not its concept but its star. Physically, Bunbury has a lot to overcome. She is lovely of course but she lacks the musculature of a star athlete, even one that has relied almost exclusively on a single pitch (which itself strains credibility).

Bunbury has learned to pitch in a way that’s believable enough, for television, if you squint, but a few scenes showing Ginny as an actual athlete would have helped. A lot. Pitchers are specialists, but they know how to catch a ball and throw to a base, to swing a bat, do a set of suicides and a few crunches, or at least run a lap or two.

Ol’ Ginny takes the mound with barely a stretch.

But what she doesn’t have physically, she does have personally. This being a broadcast premiere, Ginny is forced through many predictable expositional and emotional hoops, and Bunbury makes that exercise seem effortless. Though she is the center of the story, Ginny remains something of a cipher. A reserved combination of confidence and self-doubt, she is neither the typical “accidental” prodigy or self-driven diva.

She is, instead, a person who is a woman who is a baseball player. Now that’s a concept.

And her team is very strong. The show’s supporting cast does much of the heavy lifting in the premiere, framing “Pitch” both in fable and reality. Larter’s agent, Amelia, gives all the necessary speeches, Gosselaar humanizes the team reaction and Holder reminds Ginny that while she may be a “first,” she is not an “only.”

But it’s Balaban who, in a few brief scenes, brings instant believability to the whole situation. His owner character is no feminist crusader, but neither is he a money-grubber — he sees an opportunity to do something new and can’t wait to see what happens when he decides to do it.

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Which is a very good way to look at “Pitch.”  As with Fogelman’s “This Is Us,” the first hour has its own sort of resolution. While immediately effective, this does not offer clear direction for the rest of the series (which has been referred to by one producer as a “soap” and one hopes will not devolve into “how to date while being a female ballplayer.”)

Ginny, and “Pitch,” deserve our attention and a chance to prove they are something more than a gimmick. She is a first for television too — decades into Title IX, there has yet to be a major series about female athletics. “Pitch” is not quite that, but it’s a start.

And that does feel pretty good.

 

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‘Pitch’

Where: Fox

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

@marymacTV


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