Fox’s new drama, Pitch, stars Kylie Bunbury (Under the Dome, The Sitter) as Ginny Baker, the first female player in Major League Baseball. As the show opens, it’s Ginny’s first day as a fill-in starter for the San Diego Padres. What her arm can’t accomplish in speed next to male players, Ginny makes up for with a specialty pitch called a screwball.
Pitch puts as much effort into getting the baseball parts of the story to look realistic as it does into making Ginny’s story believable, says showrunner Kevin Falls, a die-hard baseball fan known on set as “The Baseball Nazi.” But it’s not just due to his affection for the game; it’s part of the deal Fox made with the league. The series, premiering Thursday night, boasts an unprecedented partnership with MLB, a deal that allows them to film in its baseball parks, use official baseball uniforms, umpires, team names, and even its logos.
Step one was hiring Mike Fisher, a sports coordinator who worked on Moneyball, The Blindside, and Remember the Titans, to help producers and directors cast former college or Minor League baseball players as extras, and choreograph the game sequences. “Baseball is certainly the simplest and easiest of all the sports [to choreograph] because there’s no contact,” says Fisher, who has a mild manner even when he’s yelling out instructions from his bullhorn. “It’s easier for me to motivate a guy to dive for the ball up the middle or to run back to the wall for a home run as opposed to, Hey, you, I know it’s 20 degrees out and it’s four in the morning but in this scene, you go across the middle and the guy hits you and knocks your face mask off. So, like on Moneyball, the key thing is to get real legit guys. If you get them, things look right.”
Before filming begins, producers and the episode director have a “baseball meeting” with Fisher to review the script and the baseball action. For the pilot, based on Fisher’s feedback, executive producer and pilot director Paris Barclay created a storyboard for all the visual sequences. Barclay then talked to Fisher again to see if any adjustments needed to be made, and shared it with the director of photography and the actors. Ken Fink, who directed the third episode, used a similar process, but he made a list of actions for Fisher, which allowed him to “breathe some life into the little pieces.” For example, Fink said, “What happens when somebody gets a single? They take off their ankle protector, they high-five. Mike makes sure that I get all of that real, little baseball life.”
From here, Fisher calls the casting office to see if he needs to find more players. More important: He finds out what actors have been cast who might need to go to his unofficial training camp — a baseball stadium in the Valley in Los Angeles. “My biggest challenge is looking for doubles and working with actors that don’t have any baseball experience and trying to make them look authentic in a very short period of time,” he said. “A lot of times I don’t meet them until two days before we shoot.”
Last month, Vulture spent a day on location with Pitch at Petco Park in San Diego observing how the baseball scenes are filmed — we came away with the four steps to staging a fake baseball game.
1. The stand-ins and real ballplayers run through the scene sans actors.
To show the directors, producers, and camera operators how it will all work, Fisher teaches the sequences to the actor’s stand-ins and they run through the scene with him. “Mike has a playbook for every play and where each person has to be,” Barclay said. “It’s really like a dance number.”
In this crucial scene for episode three, “Beanball,” Division 1 baseball pitcher Amber Olive, Bunbury’s stand-in, is at bat. Justen Naughton, who played baseball through college, is playing Cardinals pitcher Greg Mount (nickname is “The Mountain”). Andy Hnilo, another Division 1 player who came up through the casting process in San Diego, also plays an important role in the episode as a member of the Cardinals, the team the Padres are playing that day. “For these roles, it’s more important that they can pitch than they can act,” Falls explained from the sidelines.
The ensemble moves through the sequence, which ends with Ginny getting in The Mountain’s face, and both teams running out of their dugouts and starting a brawl. The run-through is over in ten minutes. After observing the plays, Fink and Fisher discuss adjustments. “This has more moving parts than anything we’ve done before,” Fisher said. “We had two benches emptying and a brawl and there’s people working out here today I’ve never met before, so trying to get them to go in the right direction is a little bit of a challenge.”
2. The actors observe.
Bunbury, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Mo McRae, and Ryan Dorsey enter in their normal sportswear to watch the stand-ins and ballplayers reprise the scene with Fisher, take notes, and ask questions.
When they’re done, Fink walks over from video village, where he watches the action on cameras, and lets everyone know that he wants the action to slow down, and the entrance of the players from the dugout to be more dramatic. “I want to see them coming from all sides,” he says. Once they get it right, the director says he’s ready for the actors.
3. The actors step up to the plate.
The stars change into their costumes and return to the field. Extras in the stands take their places strategically where cameras can capture their reactions. Through visual effects, the rest of the empty seats in the stadium will be filled. Sometimes special effects also fill in for the ball to protect Bunbury’s arm from getting burned out from repeated throws, or to make sure an actor doesn’t get hurt with a ball. “That’s what we call the magic ball,” Fisher says. “In our very first meeting, they were asking me a million questions about how we did Money Ball, and I said that was a magic ball. Even if we have guys out here that can throw 95 mph, there’s a lot of reasons to use the magic ball. I know actors get disappointed because they like to swing away.”
Bunbury tells first assistant director Jennifer Wilkinson that she wants to talk privately with her pitching coach, Gregg Olson, before rehearsals begin. Fisher asked Olson, a former Baltimore Orioles pitcher, to join the team on the first day of the pilot shoot in March. (Olson is also playing the Padres pitching coach on the show.) Bunbury had already spent two or three months working with other coaches, but it wasn’t working out. On her first day of working with Olson, Bunbury cried.
“Gregg was brand-new to this as well so when he came up to me in my first scene and was telling me this is wrong, this is wrong, I started crying,” Bunbury said. “But it wasn’t because he was mean. I was thinking, darn it, I’ve been working at this for two and a half months and it’s wrong and now I have to shoot it. I’m messing this up.”
Olson figured Bunbury didn’t like him much. “I was giving her different thought processes, but she was getting ready to shoot so it was too much for her — I didn’t realize that shot was coming up right then,” he said. “I’m still learning to stay out of the director’s way. I’m just trying to make sure it all looks like baseball.”
Even though he was a pitcher, Olson also has been working with the cast as their batting coach. Before work that morning, Olson met Gosselaar and McRae early at the batting cages to practice. “It’s all about getting the mechanics down and looking the part,” says Gosselaar, who plays the Padres catcher and team captain. “Even though sometimes it’s not a real ball, we have to look like we’re hitting a real ball. There are very specific ways to swing a bat, and anybody who’s a fan of baseball will pick up on all the little idiosyncrasies that aren’t correct, so we strive to make it look as authentic as possible.”
After Bunbury and Olson return to the field, it’s time for rehearsals. “The tricky part of this brawl is, first of all, no one getting cleated,” Fisher said. “But more importantly, there’s dialogue involved, and so the timing of everybody running on the field, people getting tackled, and making it mesh with the dialogue, and have everything make sense from a baseball standpoint — that’s the biggest challenge.”
The first rehearsal yields an important lesson. “The extras were wearing their cleats and it chewed up a bit of the infield,” Falls says. “The Padres groundskeeper correctly pointed that out. From now on, it will be rehearsed without them running and they will be wearing soft shoes.”
4. Filming begins, mostly on hidden cameras.
Bunbury walks over to the plate and gets in her batting stance. There are no cameras — handheld or otherwise — following any of the action on the field. In fact, for those on the sidelines or watching from the stands, it feels and looks just like a regular baseball game. Fox Sports, the sole broadcaster of the World Series since 2000, is filming the action from seven hidden or out-of-the-way cameras like it would any other MLB game. This two-prong approach to filming — first from the hidden cameras, and later, with regular film cameras for close-up shots — was Barclay’s idea when he set up the pilot.
“We have this whole crew from Fox Sports that shoots Major League Baseball and they’re shooting it like a real baseball game,” Barclay says. “We do that action really wide and get it all. After we have that perspective, with banners and all the Fox graphics, we’ll come back with our cameras and get the actors’ close-ups and our particular coverage.”
After the first take, Fink advises Bunbury to walk out to the plate and take a breath. “You’re nervous,” he says, reminding her of Ginny’s frame of mind. “I know,” she responds. “It’s like me being here right now. I’m still scared shitless. Sometimes I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.”
There will be plenty of time to figure it out. Filming the scene takes up more than the first half of the day, and there’s still the close-up coverage, which they will get on another day. “We call that our Game of Thrones segment, where you’re getting in there and you’re seeing the spittle and pushing and shoving and angry faces and that kind of tension,” Falls says. “That’s the point of view that you would never get in a telecast.”