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In Fox’s ‘Pitch,’ women and sports aren’t mutually exclusive concepts

“You can do both.”

CREDIT: FOX
CREDIT: FOX

Last week, while previewing Pitch — Fox’s new prime-time drama about Ginny Baker, the (fictional) first female pitcher in Major League Baseball history — the New York Times posed a question: “How will ‘Pitch’ cater to the hard-core baseball fan expecting authenticity while still appealing to women?”

The framing of the question angered many, particularly female baseball fans whose mere existence proves it’s not an either/or proposition.

Among those fans is Molly Knight, a lifelong baseball lover, sportswriter, and the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Lose Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse.

Knight also happens to be a consultant on Pitch, where her job is to work with writers to make sure the show is as true as it can be to the MLB universe.

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She knows better than anyone that the real MLB has plenty of female fans and soap-opera like drama already, so there’s no need to pander to some arbitrary divide between women and sports.

“This show is going to have stuff in it that is really inside baseball; they don’t talk down to the audience,” Knight told ThinkProgress in a phone interview last week. “But, of course, it’s a TV show, so it’s very story driven, on and off the field.”

“You can do both,” she added.

The Pitch pilot doesn’t waste any time taking viewers right into the heart of the action. It begins with Baker (played by Kylie Bunbury) walking into the San Diego Padres clubhouse for the first time with the eyes of the world upon her.

“I think when kids see people who look like them in positions, it can be inspiring in ways we don’t realize.”

The show does a great job replicating what would undoubtedly be a messy mixture of sports and celebrity media madness surrounding such a story, and the central conflicts of the series are exposed right away: How will Baker handle the attention and pressure that comes with being the first female pitcher? Will her teammates and manager accept her? Is she merely a ticket-selling sideshow, or is she good enough to last in the league?

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In the pilot, Pitch’s promise lies in how nuanced the answers to these questions seem to be. Baker is self assured, but far from unaffected by the realities of her situations; her teammates aren’t caricature-like bullies, but they’re not all instantly accepting of her intrusion; she is a really good pitcher, but her future on the team is far from guaranteed. These complexities ground what could be perceived as a gimmick in a much more realistic space.

Knight says that when she explains the premise in detail, even skeptical MLB players have warmed up to the show.

“I explain to them, she has a screwball [a trick pitch], and she comes up through the farm system. It’s not a guarantee that it’s going to work. She’s not a top prospect. It’s not going to be handed to her,” Knight said. “It’s reality, and it’s what so many of these players face when they’re trying to just earn a spot.”

The show takes care to make the baseball world that Baker plays in is as realistic as it can be. It helps that the show has an official partnership with Major League Baseball, meaning they can use actual team names and film in the actual stadiums. Even their constructed sets are meticulously designed to be as accurate as possible.

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“When I walked onto the set for the first time, I was in shock because it was a perfect replica of the Padres locker room — down to the lighting, the temperature, the bottles in the bathroom,” Knight said. “They didn’t have to do that.”

Knight helps makes sure that Pitch’s plots are as believable as its sets — or, well, as believable as a fictional prime-time TV drama based around a scenario that has not yet occurred in real life can be. She talks the writers through scenarios such as what happens if a player misses a flight, why the trade and waiver deadlines are important, and when media has access to the players. Most of the time, she says, the writers are extremely receptive to her feedback.

“In addition to it being cool because it’s a show about a female breaking barriers in a man’s world, it’s also really, really authentic,” Knight said.

But in addition to the existence of Baker’s character, the show strays from reality in a few other notable ways. The team’s general manager is played by Mark Consuelos, a Spanish actor, despite the fact that there are absolutely no Hispanic managers in the MLB. And Baker is one of multiple African Americans on the team, despite the fact that currently only 8 percent of the league is black.

Knight hopes the diversity of the casting will help the actual MLB become less of a “white man’s sport.”

“In addition to it being cool because it’s a show about a female breaking barriers in a man’s world, it’s also really, really authentic.”

“We’re hemorrhaging black athletes in the sports, there’s a start lack of Hispanics in front offices. I think that kids, especially, need to see that representation,” she said.

“It’s more complicated than that, I know, but I think when kids see people who look like them in positions, it can be inspiring in ways we don’t realize.”

Of course, there’s also the hope that the show does attract more women to the sport — not solely as fans, but rather as players. It’s long been speculated whether a woman will ever pitch in the majors, and many consider it a matter of when, not if.

“Probably the only reason it hasn’t yet is because women who are really good at baseball quickly transition into softball,” Knight said. “But I think if you hand every woman in the country a baseball and teach them a knuckleball, that there would be a handful good enough to throw that pitch in the majors for sure.”

Knight thinks that Pitch just might speed up that timeline.

After all, the premise is groundbreaking, but the show’s strength is that it strives to be much more than a gimmick, just as its main character does.

“It’s about equality, about wanting to be evaluated based on your skill level,” Knight said. “That’s what Ginny wants. She doesn’t like the idea that she might be elevated for other reasons.”

Because of that, it’s a show that can appeal to everyone — even hardcore female baseball fans and men who don’t know what a pitch count is.