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‘Pitch’ Review: The First Female Professional Baseball Player Is Nearly Undone By Her Emotions

Fox's baseball drama telegraphed its last second twist, but was the real error constructing a pilot around the first female major leaguer who can't do her job because she's emotional?

PITCH: Kylie Bunbury in the all-new “Pilot” on FOX

Tommy Garcia / FOX

We are approaching a milestone in America: Hillary Clinton is on pace to become the first female President of the United States. It’s a landmark achievement thats weight has somehow been trumped by our need to avoid the end of the world (pun intended), but the far-reaching impact of a woman holding our nation’s highest office will be felt long beyond the lives of anyone reading these words. Not only is it historic — it’s significant.

Now, comparing that achievement with America’s first female professional baseball player may seem like a stretch. Even more so considering this ballplayer only exists on television, within the fictional world of “Pitch” created by Dan Fogelman and Rick Singer. Yet the connection is made within the series itself, as one of the first images we see is a vase of flowers delivered to freshly called-up San Diego Padres pitcher Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury, a fine young actor in her first major role). A note on the card explains the congratulatory gift was sent from — you guessed it — Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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Cleary, this pitcher is a big deal, and during the first third of the “Pitch” pilot, Fogelman and Singer make sure the significance of the moment they’ve constructed isn’t lost on the viewer. Besides Clinton’s flowers, there are constant comparisons to Jackie Robinson (Baker is given jersey No. 43, “one up from Jackie.”). Her agent, played by Ali Larter, makes a pretty convincing speech explaining why Baker is the most important woman on Earth. Sports reporters blast thoughts from TVs in the hotel lobby, the car Baker takes to the stadium and eventually as color commentary during her game. This is a big deal, and you feel it in your bones. You’re right there with her — in the game; on the mound; a part of history.

PITCH: Kylie Bunbury in the all-new “Pilot” series premiere episode of PITCH airing Thursday, Sept. 22 (8:59-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX © 2016 FOX Broadcasting Co

Then… there’s the pitch. [Spoilers for the “Pitch” pilot ahead] Baker, completely unnerved by the pressure, throws 10 wild pitches and excuses herself from the game. She’s so lost out there she can’t even keep her composure between pitches. And while the shocking loss of control is all part of the series’ narrative drama, there’s something inherently troubling about seeing a woman overcome decades of oppression through hard work, talent and an unparalleled professional mastery only to be let down by a sexist cliche so often cited as the reason she couldn’t do it in the first place: She’s too emotional.

Before digging into exactly why this is still an issue in a show about baseball, let me first say that anyone complaining about “Pitch” simply because it fouls up a few specifics of the sport can shut the hell up. No, an MLB catcher would never use the term “aiming your pitches” as a positive, and, yes, Baker’s CGI fastballs look as fake as the ‘turf in the old Astrodome. But no one cited Nuke LaLoosh’s throwing motion as a reason to hate “Bull Durham,” so we shouldn’t be disqualifying “Pitch” for similar shortcomings — it’s a TV show, and TV shows have to take certain liberties to tell a compelling story. (Plus, Bunbury’s motion is so much better than Tim Robbins’.)

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TV shows do, however, have a responsibility — especially series meant to represent more than just a TV show. “Pitch” does a lot of things right in its first hour, especially in the buildup to her first game. Anyone looking forward to relishing the image of a woman in uniform standing tall on a mound for a professional baseball game should get goosebumps when she does. But those feelings are quickly betrayed by the exaggerated manner in which Baker blows up.

PITCH: L-R: Dan Lauria, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Kylie Bunbury in PITCH coming soon to FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co

It’s not that she failed to live up to expectations. It’s that she failed so spectacularly and in a way directly related to a sexist assumption attached to her gender. Had she gone out and thrown strikes but still got shelled by the opposing batters, the dramatic effect would have been the same. She would’ve still had to figure out her way back, professionally. But by showing her completely lose control of everything — from literal control over her pitches to her reactions on the field to simple muscle memory that allows athletes to perform without such extreme deviations from the goal — “Pitch” presents a scene with uncomfortable real-world parallels.

Watching Baker throw 10 straight pitches either against the backstop or into the infield grass (not even the dirt, which is closer to the plate) is the sports equivalent of Hillary Clinton weeping through Monday’s nationally-televised Presidential debate. While this is far from the designed interpretation — “Pitch” seems to be made with the purest of intentions — it still speaks to the delicate line the series will have to walk to succeed. The last second twist regarding Baker’s supportive but overbearing father provides no clue as to what’s next (nor is it particularly rewarding), and we can’t simply watch episode after episode until Baker throws a perfect game. There’s got to be some off-the-field drama, and early hints that a pitcher-catcher love story could develop between Baker and Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) don’t bode well for implications derived from “Pitch.” (Women can have platonic teammates just as men can, after all. Moreover, they can have problems not related to their love life.)

We are approaching a milestone in America: Barring the unthinkable, women are about to shatter a ceiling that long ago deserved to come down. “Pitch,” one way or another, wants to be a part of this movement. Good. More of us should want that, too. But “Pitch” also has its historic moment written in. If it wants to be significant, it’s got a long way to go.

Grade: C+

“Pitch” airs new episodes Wednesdays on Fox at 9pm. 

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