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Dan Fogelman has high hopes for Fox’s newly ordered baseball drama series Pitch.
The prolific producer (The Neighbors, Galavant) is a longtime baseball fan and was able to parlay his love of the game into what he hopes is a groundbreaking series about the first woman to break the gender barrier in the big four professional sports.
Pitch, picked up to series Tuesday at Fox, centers on Ginny (Under the Dome’s Kylie Bunbury), a young female pitcher who defies the odds when she becomes the first woman to play in Major League Baseball.
In addition to its trailblazing premise, Pitch also scored a behind-the-scenes homerun when the network and studio teamed with MLB on the series. The deal gives Pitch unparalleled access to the league’s teams, uniforms, players, stadiums and more. In exchange, MLB offers its experts (and loads of ex-players) to help ensure the show reflects the national pastime in the most authentic way possible.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Fogelman during production on the pilot in March to break down how Pitch got its turn at bat, working with MLB and the pitch selection that might make Ginny a star.
How big of a baseball fan are you — and how did you get involved with Pitch?
I’m a huge baseball fan and a diehard Mets fan. This project came to me via writer Rick Singer and Tony Bill, a legendary producer and director. They had been developing this for a long time as a movie. They’re huge baseball junkies themselves. I’d first talked to Tony about it as a film and I realized as my deal was coming over to 20th Century Fox Television that it might be a nice fit as a TV series.
Fox has a deal with Major League Baseball for postseason games, including the World Series. What were your talks with the network like when the league’s involvement first became a possibility?
It was a process that’s been relatively smooth between these two giant organizations who obviously have a great working relationship. I’d wanted to do this with Tony and Rick and everyone and it felt very important to us that it be with Major League Baseball. I didn’t want to do fictional baseball teams and uniforms and that sort of thing. I was very hopeful because it’s such a natural fit between Fox and MLB. I first got everyone at Fox excited about the conceit of the show. The next step was going to New York and meeting with MLB, and I pitched them the show and told them what I wanted to do to see if they’d be interested in coming on board. That went well and it’s been a process that involved a lot of people and moving parts. Everybody is really excited about it and sees the upside if this one works. It was just a lot to figure out logistically.
When were your first conversations with MLB?
Toward the end of summer. I went to New York and met with the commissioner of MLB and a couple of his people and they were very into it. Their big ask was that we get the baseball right and make sure this feels real and authentic. That’s been a big part of what we’ve been chasing — to live up to that. There’s a real point of entry for people who love watching television with interesting stories and characters but also for baseball lovers, we’re getting the details right. All the people involved with the show on my end are baseball lovers and on top of that, on the field as we were shooting the pilot, we have Major League umpires and consultants and former MLB players. They’re grabbing the actors and telling them how to properly grab the rosin bag and get all the nuance right.
Who are some of the players you’re working with as consultants?
C.J. Nitkowski, who is an analyst for Fox Sports now, has been helping us a lot with the script and making sure we’re getting that right. Ex-pitcher Gregg Olson has been working with us. It’s not in the pilot, but none of our players are really hitting on camera as the story has it — it’s a lot of Kylie pitching and fielding — but they’ve been training with Alan Jaeger [who has worked with more than 200 professional players including Barry Zito, Dan Haren and Andrew Bailey].
Kylie comes from an athletic family. How has she been adapting to learning to pitch?
We cast her before we even had a script. Rick and I wrote sides that we knew would be in the script at some point and we auditioned everybody in the country and we found Kylie and Fox believed in her and we cast her early. That enabled her to have months of Major League Baseball training before we even got to shooting. If we had cast her during the normal pilot schedule, she would have had two weeks to look realistically like a big-league pitcher. She is a natural athlete and has been working incredibly hard four-to-six days a week of training for months. She’s the real thing. She’s throwing from 60-feet-six-inches away [the distance from the mound to the plate in MLB] and throwing with velocity and accuracy. It’s really impressive.
What’s her pitch? One of the biggest reasons that women haven’t broken MLB’s gender barrier is because of velocity, and most who have been successful have some sort of off-speed pitch like a knuckleball.
She has an arsenal of filthy stuff. In making sure that everything feels accurate and believable, there are limitations of body type and it will be very hard and challenging for a woman to be throwing 100 MPH. In the story, she has a very hard-driving father who has groomed her from birth to be the first woman to make it in MLB, and at a certain point in her adolescence levels with her [and says], “You’re never going to have the arm strength of the boys you’re competing with, so we’re going to give you some secret weapons and you’ll start training from the time you’re 12 years old.” So she has these arsenal pitches but primarily a screwball, which is a pitch that’s not used that much anymore. It tends to be a pitch that an old trick pitcher used to use at the end of their careers when their arms are going bad. In her case, it’s pitches like that that she’s been training at since she was a little girl.
Mo’Ne Davis has been such a striking figure for us because it’s just so current. I was at the ESPYs a year or two ago and she was there and it was an interesting moment to see her at one of the parties. I’m still kind of starstruck by athletes more than actors and it was interesting in this room of stars and actors that she was a shining star among them all. The amount of attention that would come with a woman breaking this barrier in one of the four professional sports is a big part of our story; it’s not just about baseball. It’s about celebrity, fame and self-belief and self-worth. It’s a real coming-of-age story. If it was to happen — and it will happen at some point — if the person who does it has Kylie’s skill set, she’s going to instantly become one of the most important women on the planet overnight. It will transcend baseball and sports. That’s been part of the fun: figuring out what that will look like when a woman breaks the gender barrier in one of the four major professional sports.
With the MLB deal, what kind of access are you getting? And how involved are they in the script stage? The Big Bang Theory has a science adviser who fills in the blanks left in the script for the jargon. Do you have the same with MLB on Pitch?
We do because it’s important to us and to MLB. We have all the guys at Fox Sports — and there are so many of them [involved]. MLB reads our scripts and they’ve been really great. C.J. reads the script. We have 17 guys on set during the pilot and one during production gave an ad-lib to an umpire coming out to the mound who wanted to change the verbiage. We have a careful checks and balance system on multiple fronts. We’ll have tons of ex-players supporting in some capacity. The pilot is really finite — it’s a 50-page script — and when five people have read it, you’re good. In series, we’re probably going to have a lot of checks and balances to make sure we get it all right.
The team featured on the show is the San Diego Padres. Why not go with a bigger market team, like the Dodgers in L.A.?
Petco is such a beautiful stadium and a great place to be shooting. We wanted to do it locally. The team felt like a team that would be friendly toward us and they’ve been incredible thus far. MLB had suggested numerous teams and the Padres was one that we thought would be really excited to have us and a good partnership for us. We’re a presence, we’re shooting on their off-days with hundreds of extras filling the stadium and we’re all over their field trying to be respectful. We needed a team that would be open to having that presence there. They’ve been so welcoming. It just felt like a good fit.
The Padres are playing the Dodgers in the pilot. Is there the potential to see players from the Padres or even opposing teams making cameos?
Absolutely. It’s an evolving process. In the pilot, there’s a couple of games where we play the Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. We want to be able to utilize cameos. Nothing would make me happier than Ginny facing Mike Trout [of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim] down the road in an episode. On the team itself, it can be a little jarring if you’re using current San Diego Padres when we have a Padres team of our own. That can be tricky. But it’s very much our plan and hope to be able to use as much as we can. Fox has the All-Star Game this season and it’s taking place in San Diego, so it’s kind of kismet. Obviously that feels like a great place to see a lot of people like that — if we’re able to pull it off.
Would you guys do an All-Star game episode?
I would hope so. It will all depend on where we air and how we air. Major League Baseball pitchers are selected, rather than on the ballots you get at the field, but how great would it be to have Ginny be the biggest write-in on ballots in history? No matter how well she’s doing — which is a really interesting thing for character and for conflict. We were talking about the possibilities of something like that.
Fox has always had a challenge scheduling its fall launch, having to hit pause for post-season baseball. Have there been any talks about how you would possibly launch this and how it could tie in with the World Series?
Not yet. We’re on Day 9 of shooting right now and it feels very special, and I’m very optimistic at how it’s feeling creatively beyond all the business of it. First, it’s got to be good and moving and fun; if it’s all of those things, there’s the potential for a big win here for everybody. It could be great for Fox, but for MLB, it could be a great way to get some fun new and female eyes on the game itself because everybody involved in the show — and it’s a big group of producers, men and women of all ages — and we’re all baseball lovers. This can be the kind of show that expands the audience for everybody.
What kind of ground rules has MLB set up in terms of what you can and can’t do?
Not a lot. We have a great creative partnership. I’m not dying to dive into anything massively controversial; it’s not what the show is about. It’s not because we’re being wimps about it, it’s just not where the show lives. This show is not Playmakers set in MLB; it’s not about scandal. I reference The West Wing — my all-time favorite show — a lot, and that was a show that went inside the operations of the White House with fictional characters who, while they can be flawed and make mistakes, the overall picture was a loving portrayal of what goes on inside that building. That’s what we’re going to do here. Any restrictions are not going to be problematic for the show as it’s not a place we want to take it anyway.
So you won’t be taking on any stories involving performance-enhancing drugs?
No. It’s not what the show is. What we’re going to be exploring is friendships, love, success and fame. It’s not all going to be sweet and perfect, but that’s not a necessary part of it.
If MLB didn’t come on board here, did you have a backup plan?
Not really! What interested me was doing a real version of this. I’ve done some sports stuff in the past where you had to create the fictional stuff and it’s hard and distancing. As a baseball fan, it’s such a sport that’s based in those uniforms and the feel of it and the iconic imagery of it that I don’t think it would have felt right without MLB.
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