The stakes for Pitch might not be as high as they are for its protagonist, but there’s still plenty riding on the new Fox drama. Creators Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer have promoted their show as a “story on the verge of happening,” so in a year that’s already seen the historical nomination of a woman for president by a major party, this tale of the woman who revolutionizes baseball has to be both inspirational and grounded. Ginny Baker’s (Kylie Bunbury) trip to the majors can’t be presented as sci-fi, with far-fetched explanations for her prowess—but neither should its significance, however fictional, be downplayed. (Real-life events like softball player Jennie Finch striking out Los Angeles Angel Albert Pujols and Melissa Mayeux becoming the first woman to be added to Major League Baseball’s international registration list also lend some credence to Ginny’s ascension.) And, of course, Pitch has to be entertaining in order to keep playing.
That’s a lot of hope to pin to a pilot, which does come up a little short. Although still a relative newcomer, Bunbury is easily the highlight of the hour, carrying the episode with charisma and grit. Ginny’s introduction sees her making her way to the San Diego Padres stadium, her headphones on to drown out the noise of her handlers and the crowds. In these wordless moments, Bunbury conveys so much with just her movements and expression. Her face is composed, her eyes focused as she strides past the onlookers. That confidence is inspiring to the thousands of young girls and women who have turned out for their first baseball game ever, with signs that read “I’m next.” It’s also infuriating to the many men—including her teammates—who think she’s a sideshow, a “gimmick” who’s messing with their odds of winning the pennant this year.
When Ginny does finally speak, it’s to refute the assertion of the Padres’ owner (Bob Balaban) that the team is happy to have her on board, though she does acknowledge that the boost her arrival has given ticket sales must have him tickled. Ginny’s reticence isn’t shyness or even awe—she’s thrilled by the opportunity but also fully aware of the hard work it took to get there. She’s the only daughter of a former minor leaguer, who seized upon Ginny’s talent at an early age. Ginny’s dreams are her father’s dreams, and her success—if it extends past this first outing as starting pitcher for the Padres—will be his success. There are several flashbacks to her rigorous training, in which Ginny builds an arsenal of pitches, including the screwball that becomes her ticket to the majors. As her father teaches her the technique, he vocalizes the “same concerns” that critics of women playing baseball (represented here by multiple characters) usually utter—that a woman pitcher will never have the speed to be a real contender.
The newest Padre might not be the most powerful pitcher, but she is a wily one. Fox worked closely with MLB to ensure authenticity in the setting and to provide an accurate depiction of Ginny’s skills. By working out these mechanics early on, Pitch wants to skip the origin to focus on the drama of Ginny dealing with a major league career. When the story does dip into the past—which it does several times in the pilot—it slows down the story. These scenes are intended to add weight to Ginny’s already burdened shoulders, but they would better serve the plot if they were sprinkled throughout the season, because if every episode features so many glimpses backward, Ginny (and viewers) will have difficulty looking toward the future.
Overall, the Paris Barclay-directed premiere moves at a rapid clip, spanning two games and Ginny’s introduction to teammates like catcher Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). The Padres’ back-stopper is a great hitter, but as his career winds down, he’s anxious about his legacy. A World Series title would just about cover it, but he doubts the team will make it to the championship game with Ginny slinging. He grudgingly admits she’s talented and, at the behest of another teammate, begins to consider that molding Ginny could be a far more significant contribution to the game. They fall easily into a mentor-mentee relationship, though Bunbury and Gosselaar’s chemistry suggests there could eventually be more. When she struggles, Lawson advises her to forget about everyone else’s hopes and just play for herself.
Lawson’s advice to Ginny also applies to the show’s treatment of the character so far. She already has plenty of motivation, but Fogelman and Singer also hinge the team’s revenue and at least one teammate’s career upon her success, to say nothing of all the young women who now look up to her. This level of scrutiny and responsibility are part and parcel of being an iconoclast, so the show shouldn’t lower Ginny’s profile. But hitching so many wagons to her star drags the story, which otherwise has a certain breathless quality to it. Baseball is obviously a collaborative sport, and Ginny is green and therefore in need of some help. But Pitch has a strong, charismatic lead, and would work best if it kept other players off the mound.