The challenge for Pitch, Fox’s new baseball drama premiering on Thursday, is to appeal to a broad audience, including many viewers who aren’t interested in baseball. As someone who likes the game but could hardly be called a diehard fan, I knew that the show would have to hook me with its characters, because its balls-and-strikes suspense would be minimal for me. It’s the old Friday Night Lights Test: I could not care less about football but was a huge fan of that show.
In this test, Pitch is fortunate to have Kylie Bunbury playing Ginny Baker, a player called up from the minor leagues by the San Diego Padres. Bunbury is an appealing young actor who pulls off the dedication and grit it might take to play for the majors, and by the second commercial break, I believed she could throw an 80-mile-an-hour pitch.
But is Pitch telling a story I — and you — will want to keep watching? The pilot episode is built around telling you everything that led up to the moment when, as a San Diego announcer puts it, “For the first time in history a woman has taken the mound in a major league baseball game.” In Ginny’s case, it took the no-nonsense pressure of a demanding father, played by Michael Beach, and his idea to have her throw a wicked screwball as a way compete with the literal big boys.
Sports dramas, whether on TV or in the movies, actually benefit by clinging to certain reassuring clichés. It would be disappointing, for example, were the coach not a crusty old guy — in this case, one played with fresh crust by The Wonder Years’ Dan Luria. I expected this rookie pitcher to have a tight professional relationship with her catcher, and indeed she does — with one played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar and his prodigious beard. The training sessions with Dad and the obligatory first-game jitters scene were presented with a vigorousness that suggested the creators — Dan Fogelman (already represented in the new TV season with This Is Us) and Rick Singer — were both aware of the traditions and good enough to work new changes on them. Cameos are made by some professional players and sports broadcasters, almost none of whom I recognized. (Again, Pitch passed my personal Sports Ignoramous test.)
The dialogue is occasionally overripe (“I’ve been ready my whole life”; “You do this for you!”) but for the most part modestly crisp. There’s a twist at the end that you may see coming — I didn’t — that leaves you wondering how it will play out in future episodes. Pitch also features Ali Larter in the so-far-thankless role of a high-powered agent who exists primarily to be abrasive and proved wrong much of the time. Hope Larter gets some help from the show’s writers in fleshing out this character.
The big question is, does the inspirational story of a female major-league player have enough tobacco juice in it to appeal to young viewers susceptible to inspirational messages and work as a day-to-day baseball tale that will keep an older, more varied audience coming back for more? Since the first episode only builds to Ginny’s own definition of triumph (hey, that’s no spoiler — if she’d flopped, there’d be no second week for the series, right?), it’s a question that remains to be answered.
Pitch airs Thursday nights at 9 p.m. on Fox. Watch clips and full episodes of Pitch for free on Yahoo View.