Mark-Paul Gosselaar on Training for 'Pitch' and How His Beard Helped Get Him the Part

The actor goes in-depth about how he worked for the role, trains with former big-leaguers to make sure he gets the baseball right and if he thinks MLB's gender barrier will be broken (he does).
Ray Mickshaw/FOX
Gosselaar on 'Pitch.'

"It's like zero to 60 every play."

That's how Pitch star Mark-Paul Gosselaar describes the demanding baseball scenes on Fox's Pitch, the drama about the first woman to break the gender barrier in Major League Baseball.

On Pitch, Gosselaar plays Mike Lawson, the All-Star catcher and captain of the show's Padres, who pushes his teammates to accept Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) as one of their own.

The role marks a big departure for Saved by the Bell, NYPD Blue and Franklin & Bash grad Gosselaar, who works as hard on his baseball game as he does on the show's dramatic moments.

THR was on set for the first day of production on Pitch at Dodger Stadium and caught up with Gosselaar after a particularly demanding baseball scene that will be featured during episode two of the drama from Rick Singer, Dan Fogelman and Kevin Falls.

Let's go back to the beginning. When you came in with the offer for Pitch­ —

I didn't come in with the offer. I would have loved an offer. I wouldn't have had to work so hard! (Laughs.) I had gone to dinner with [Pitch showrunner] Kevin Falls [with whom he worked on TNT's Franklin & Bash], and we were talking about certain projects. He said he was going to showrun Pitch and said it was about the first female pitcher in Major League Baseball. We were with a bunch of other producers at dinner talking about mutual things that we were working on. I drove Kevin that night and asked if Pitch was legit. I know [exec producer] Dan Fogelman is a great writer, but asked if they had a girl who can pitch. Two weeks later I got the script, and I immediately called Kevin and said the script was amazing and asked why he didn't tell me it was that level of scriptwriting for TV. I asked him why he hadn't talked to anyone involved about me playing the catcher, Mike Lawson. He didn't think we should go that route and thought I should come in and audition instead. Generally, an actor never wants to go in because there's too many variables. You could have a bad day or maybe they don't like you, and it's better if someone like Kevin Falls were to go to Dan on my behalf. But that puts a lot of pressure on Kevin, so he thought I should go in and fight for it. I went in and had a really good audition. Kevin texted me right afterward and said I crushed it and now just had to wait. Dan thought I was great but was concerned about some of the past baggage that I brought — though he didn't say it in a negative way. He said, "I don't want people to recognize you right off the bat. Can you grow a beard?" I'm a fan of baseball, I know that 70 percent of baseball players have beards — especially catchers, who are more burly players — and then Dan asked if I could gain weight for it. I said yes to both. 

That's such an anti-Hollywood request: Grow a beard and gain weight.

It is! I've been in television for 30 years and I play "characters" — Zach Morris [from Saved by the Bell] to my last role on Franklin & Bash. I'm not that guy. I'm not Peter Bash. I'm not Zach Morris. I'm just Zach's dyed hair and the look and the cadence of his talk. The same with Peter Bash. But when the creator of the show says, "I want you to play a character," that doesn't happen too often in television. It happens a lot in film, but in television they kind of want you to be the commodity that comes with your name in a way. … Dan wanted you to watch the pilot and not immediately go, "That's Mark-Paul. Or Zach Morris. Or Peter Bash [pictured below]. Or all the characters you played in the past." It's nice.

And this role is so much more physically demanding than anything you've done in the past — especially playing a catcher, which is one of the most grueling positions in baseball.

I can't open up bottles anymore with my forefinger and my thumb on certain days. I had a real hard time twisting the cap.

From playing for the show?

We have [former Baltimore Orioles pitcher] Gregg Olson pitch, and in simulation with the pitching machine that we have cranked up to about 80 miles per hour just so I can see the ball. I want to be legit. But every once in a while, it'll pop off and there's nothing you can do and catch it wrong. It's been pretty physically demanding. It's a full-time job off the set — especially for Mo McRae [who plays center fielder Blip Sanders] and me. We run a little leaner than a baseball player, so I've had to gain 15 to 20 pounds. And to stay at that weight, I have to eat quite a bit and maintain my nutrition, my diet and make sure we're on the right track.

What kind of preparation did you do for Pitch — aside from the beard and weight gain? 

We called Mike Fisher, the technical adviser, and asked him to put us in touch with some real baseball players who played infield and outfield. We asked to train with them, and they would be coaching high schoolers and Mo and I would just tag along and go to batting practice wherever they were. So we had a couple of late nights. We would do like 8 or 9 p.m. at a school in the Valley because we wanted to see balls, feel a ball in our hand, feel a bat and just get better because both Mo and I had the same mentality: We want to look the part. We don't ever want someone to say, "That was a double" or "I don't believe him as a baseball player." I didn't get a chance to play in high school, and I have to get the reps in.

It's like your own spring training. Who were the big leaguers you worked with?

Exactly. [Former players] Chad Kreuter helped me a lot with catching; Gregg Olson; Royce Clayton; A.J. Pierzynski; and [current Giants All-Star catcher] Buster Posey. I'd loved to do bullpen sessions. I've been talking to Glendon Rusch, who used to be a pitcher for Dodgers and Padres who is now pitching coach for the Padres farm team in the Inland Empire, about doing a bullpen session there.

What kind of feedback do you get when you're on the field doing the actual baseball scenes? I was observing a scene for episode two when you were out on the field and Gregg was positioning your catcher's mitt at a different angle for a throw down to second.

That's something I've been struggling with. I'm really good at receiving pitches and catching and making that look like I've been doing that for a while. My batting is really good. I've always just been really good with a bat. My biggest problem was always to get to the slot back behind your shoulder and be able to throw and make it look like it was just a flick and not like a push. We've had to work on it because of all the shoulder injuries I've had. I had a hard time just trusting that my shoulder wasn't going to pop out and not using my elbow as much and making sure that I was on top of the ball rather than twisting the ball. But working with pitchers, the motion is completely different. … It's a work in progress.

And yet you're doing all this on the field of some of the biggest and most well-known baseball stadium(s) in the world. How did you feel driving into Dodger Stadium for Day 1 of production?

It's crazy. I didn't sleep well last night because there was so much anxiety and so much excitement. It felt like opening day for me because of all the prep we put in. I know Mo and Kylie are the same way. We talk about this all the time with our diet, with our training, with our work. And we forget that we have dialogue! This is like a dream job for all of us.

What type of message do you hope that Pitch sends?

I have two boys and two girls. I think it's an equally important message for my boys and my girls is that there shouldn't be any boundaries for you in life. I think it's silly to say just because you're a girl you can't pitch in the Major Leagues. If somebody has the ability and has the talent and can pitch, you should be pitching. It's hard to tell my daughter, "Well, you can pitch just as well as the boys, but you can't play."

And Pitch is especially well-timed given Hillary Clinton earning the historic presidential nomination.

It's the same thing. Just because you're a woman doesn't mean you can't do what has been done by men in the past. I don't want my boys to think that, either. I don't want them to see their sisters and go, "I'm better than you." Why? Because you're a boy? If he's better than my daughter at pitching, I want it to be based on his ability to pitch, not just because he's a boy. I don't want him to see that. I want him to understand that because he's a boy doesn't automatically mean he's better than his sister.

Physically, how much are you feeling the burn here? How athletic were you growing up?

I'm too old for this shit is what it comes down to! (Laughs.) I used to race motocross and that was a dirty secret I couldn't tell the producers of Saved by the Bell [pictured above]. My family is very into motocross. My brother has four boys and three of them have been pro and raced at the highest level — Supercross and Motocross. I did that for a long time. Then I got into car racing, another sport I couldn't tell the producers. And then almost before I turned 30, I got into cycling in a big way. I made it all the way from a cat 5 to a cat 2 in two years and I was racing at the highest level as an amateur, which is Pro-1-2. I did that for 10 years and had a pretty successful career as an amateur league cyclist. I've always felt good about what I was doing. I felt like I was the right age for things. Baseball, I've come to realize, that when you're in your late 30s, you're really nearing the end. It just takes a toll on your body. This is a young man's sport — or a young woman's sport. But I don't have any false dreams of thinking that I'm good enough to play in the minors or collegiate ball.  

Having a sense of how demanding it is to play professionally, do you realistically think we could see a woman, in our lifetime, break the gender barrier in Major League Baseball?

I hope so. That would be great. If Mo'ne Davis was shaped into being a pitcher but she wants to play for the WNBA and be a basketball player, which is amazing. That's an amazing athlete.

Pitch airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.