'Pitch': Inside Fox and Major League Baseball's Unique Partnership

Pitch Unprecedented Access to the Big Leagues - Kylie Bunbury - Publicity - H 2016
Tommy Garcia/FOX

It's a 90-degree August day in L.A., and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, clad in a San Diego Padres uniform and full catcher's gear, is chasing errant throws all over the field — at Dodger Stadium. Welcome to the start of production on Pitch, where the ability to film on such sacred ground — thanks to a deal with Fox and Major League Baseball — is as groundbreaking as its concept about the first woman to break the sport's gender barrier.

The pact, where no money exchanged hands, extends Fox and MLB's partnership beyond their $12.4 billion TV rights deal that includes postseason games and the World Series. Pitch has unparalleled access to big-league teams, stadiums and logos that lend the production an authenticity that makes its premise realistic. It marks a never-before-seen cooperation between Hollywood and baseball. "If we didn't have MLB, I don't think we could have done the show because I didn't want to create fictional teams. That defeats the whole purpose," says co-creator Dan Fogelman.

The series, debuting Sept. 22, will be a mix of baseball and family drama that uses the MLB calendar as a backbone. With game footage from ballparks in San Diego and San Francisco (and, in success, more), the show's creators want to delve into storylines that cover the All-Star Game, trade deadlines, a Cuban sensation (Christian Ochoa) struggling to acclimate and hopefully at some point an openly gay player. The series also worked with MLB at July's All-Star Game at San Diego's Petco Park — where the Pitch pilot and subsequent home game episodes are filmed — and will feature Ginny (Kylie Bunbury) participating thanks to a loophole that the league shared with producers. (Expect Ginny to be added to the actual game via VFX.) 

Director and exec producer Paris Barclay with Gosselaar during filming at Dodger Stadium. "They have been embracing change," Barclay says of MLB's involvement. "We're going to be able to take them by the hand into the 21st century and tell all kinds of stories about unique baseball players." 

MLB insiders stress there are no topics off-limits, though it's understood that steroids, domestic abuse and gambling — issues that have plagued the league — are off the table (at least for now). "Their main concerns were that we were going to paint the game in a bad light," says co-creator Rick Singer, who, after the 1999 Women's World Cup victory, envisioned the baseball drama as a movie. "They wanted to make sure we were interested in telling good stories and not salacious, just for the sake of, 'Oh, let's do steroids this week and gambling next week.' "

Fogelman, who signed a rich overall deal with 20th Century Fox TV in 2015 after ABC passed on his NBA-backed comedy pilot, convinced MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to come on board by creating a three-minute video to help sell the series. (The video, set to Rachel Platten's "Fight Song," conveyed the tone of the show using clips featuring Mo'ne Davis, Serena Williams and kids of all ages explaining what it means to do something "like a girl" and how that has evolved from the Sandlot insult it once was.) 

Both sides communicate on story ideas, and the league lends feedback about details only those close to the game would get right (like what a manager says after a trip to the mound). Producers have the final say, though they're careful to keep the league informed of what they're working on.

The biggest concern for MLB was that Pitch get baseball right so that the series is as real on the field as it is off. Producers even enlisted big leaguers such as former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Gregg Olson to consult and work with star Bunbury — who now throws 60 mph — and the cast. (Olson now also serves as the on-screen pitching coach as well.) Also in the mix are ex-Giants shortstop Royce Clayton and journeyman catcher Chad Kreuter, who with Olson, met with the Pitch writers early on. The bulk of the meeting included detailed conversations about what racism looks like in baseball as well as what it would really be like to have a woman on the roster. 

In terms of on-field accuracy, Pitch works with sports coordinator Mike Fisher (Moneyball) to wrangle extras, many of whom were former No. 1 draft picks who played in college or went high up in the Minor LeaguesExtras, like opposing players, are fitted with official MLB uniforms — at full price to the production — and play with official league gear including baseballs, mitts and batting helmets, the latter of which cost Pitch $500 a pop. In success, the series will hit the road and work with MLB to film at various stadiums across the country. Producers have a wish list that includes Chicago's Wrigley Field and Fenway Park in Boston. As for dream cameos, producers want everyone from current stars (Bryce Harper, Buster Posey) to Hall of Famers (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays) and maybe even surviving members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that inspired A League of Their Own as MLB works with Pitch to facilitate cameos and focus on all facets of life as a big-leaguer, including time on the road and at home.

While announcers including Joe Buck and John Smoltz are featured in the pilot, Pitch has also made a play for Dodgers legend Vin Scully and other commentators as the series, for the time being, shies away from featuring real players on the teams the faux Padres take on. To that point, MLB provides Pitch with a list of uniform numbers that can't be used for specific teams the Padres play, thus leaving the door open for eventual cameos. (Producers had to scrap a Clayton Kershaw storyline after the Dodgers ace opted out in order to focus on rehab from a back injury that landed him on the disabled list earlier this season.)

With this level of access and detail, Fox hopes the show not only will catch on but help promote the game. Chris Tully, MLB executive vp media, says it's "an important initiative in MLB of inclusion and diversity."

Analysts believe its a win-win for both sides. Says Linda Ong, CEO of branding firm TruthCo.: "Of course it's a marketing platform [for MLB], but the more they understand the value to viewers in having this partnership — [that it] is not merely promotion but really about promoting conversation — then I think both of the brands will really benefit."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.