Becoming Ginny Baker: 'Pitch' actress Kylie Bunbury transforms for the role of a lifetime

 

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Kylie Bunbury plays Ginny Baker in "Pitch," which premieres on Fox on Sept. 22.

Kylie Bunbury took a deep breath before stepping on set. The upcoming scene required her character to engage in a rather tense conversation with her fictional mother, Janet Baker (Chastity Dotson), and her agent, Amelia Slater (Ali Larter). She was prepared. She had studied. She put her all into that seemingly fleeting moment.

Bunbury morphed into Ginny Baker, the first female Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher and lead for the new Fox television show "Pitch," which premieres Sept. 22. This potentially ground-breaking character is a sign of hope for little girls who aspire to join the league, for those who were steered out of baseball because there wasn't an "end goal," and for women who love the game but have never found a home within the sport.

However, Ginny Baker is not real. There has never been a woman who stared down a batter from the mound of the San Diego Padres' Petco Park. Baker hasn't shattered the glass ceiling to become the first woman to start in an MLB game. She hasn't walked a player or thrown a single strike. She hasn't done these things, because she, in fact, does not exist. 

At least, not yet.

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Kylie Bunbury sits on a couch in Ginny Baker's fictional hotel room with Ali Larter -- who plays agent Amelia Slater.

There's a mockup of a "Sports Illustrated" Cover on the show's Los Angeles-based set (they also filmed in San Diego). The image shows Ginny Baker throwing a pitch, and hangs right outside of showrunner Kevin Falls' ("Minority Report," "Franklin & Bash") office. But upon first glance the image almost looks like Mo'ne Davis, the real-life 15-year-old female pitcher from Philadelphia who helped lead her team to the Little League World Series in 2014. Which begs the question: Without Davis, would there be a Baker?

"[Mo'ne] turned out to be a terrific [reference] for us," said Rick Singer ("Younger," "American Dad!"), one of the show's creators and co-executive producer, who developed the concept with film veteran Tony Bill ("Flyboys," "The Sting").

The trick, however, was finding the right person to play Baker. Enter Kylie Bunbury ("Under the Dome," "Twisted"). She received two scenes via email and was immediately intrigued by the script, and by the opportunity to play someone making history, or "herstory" in this case.

The moment Bunbury, 27, stepped into the room, Singer sat up in his chair. He silently prayed that she had the acting chops. They'd seen countless actresses, but none had fit the bill. They needed a great talent whom viewers would buy as an athlete.

"That combination made it a really elusive role," Singer said.

Bunbury, however, has athleticism in her blood, which was visible from the moment she walked in for her audition. As the daughter of retired Canadian pro soccer player Alex Bunbury, she was someone for whom sports were a way of life.

One thing that was instantly relatable for Bunbury was Baker's relationship to her father, Mike Baker (Michael Beach), a former minor league baseball player who helped her develop an enviable screwball. Baker was groomed for greatness. Her father pushed her, not satisfied with any accomplishment less than getting her into the MLB and ensuring that she thrived.

Mike Baker is hard on his daughter, but he loves her. Family, for Ginny Baker, is complicated, and her relationship with both of her parents will be explored throughout the season.

Jessica Chou for ESPN

Bunbury brings a sunny disposition to set. Her lightness is a stark contrast from the weight on Ginny Baker's shoulders.

Growing up, Bunbury played basketball and soccer and ran track. But never baseball. So, in preparation, she immersed herself in all things baseball. She religiously watched the MLB Network, read baseball books and spent the two-and-a-half months before filming the pilot learning how to be a convincing pitcher. Additionally, she boxed three days a week, she said, "just for body strength."

Another layer of legitimizing the storyline was building a relationship with the MLB. With that agreement came access to stadiums, official team names and jerseys. But the show's creators didn't want it to become a long-form commercial for the league.

"I was very leery going in -- that's not what we're doing here," Falls said.

However, laying the groundwork wasn't enough. The storyline needed to paint Baker as a true competitor, who would stand up to the male brass of the league and teammates.

"She is an athlete that transcends sports," Falls said. "Her gender may make her one of the most famous people in the world. However, her [priority] is contributing to the team in a meaningful way."

But the tension within her own clubhouse is very real. Baker's team catcher, Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who is in the twilight of his career, isn't quite sure what to do with her, and the fictional Padres' manager, Al Luongo (Dan Lauria), could live without the added attention she brings to the team.

Baker does, however, have her supporters, such as teammate Blip Sanders (Mo McRae), who played with her in the minor leagues. There's also team owner Frank Reid (Bob Balaban), who harbors a soft spot for her as well, or at least her notoriety.

Part of the show's allure is that it directly tackles race and gender issues in an ingestible manner, while also imploring the viewers' imagination. Bunbury accepts her responsibility whole-heartedly, and she hopes that real life might one day, imitate art.

"I gravitate towards strong messages and things that make an impact," Bunbury said while sitting on the couch in the on-set office of General Manager Oscar Arguella (played by Mark Consuelos), while working on the season's fourth episode, which will be directed by Regina King. "I think this show does that."

"Pitch" will air at a time where identity politics in sports have come to the forefront, reflecting the ways in which modern society processes conversations about racial justice and the treatment of LGBTQ people. The television show does not shy away from race or gender, and in this day in age it would be difficult to do so.

In some ways the show was thrust into that position after Bunbury was cast to play Baker. Though much inspiration for Baker was drawn from Venus and Serena Williams, Jackie Robinson and Tiger Woods, there was no explicit intention of casting Ginny Baker as an African-American. Bunbury, however, brought Baker to life, immediately making her a woman of color, bringing forth interesting questions that might have been overlooked otherwise. 

For instance, as a black female pro-athlete, would Ginny Baker kneel during the national anthem?

It's a provocative question, and while the answer is unknown thus far, the character will face today's political and social conversations.

Director Paris Barclay, who is an African-American man, noted, "Someone is going to ask her if Black Lives Matter or not. And what is she going to say? Is she going to be able to face these issues?"

Ginny Baker could have gone the way of many lead television roles and been a white woman. That didn't happen because of Bunbury.

"I was enough, and I think that is an important message for anyone to know," Bunbury said. "You're capable. You are enough."

Bunbury's casting is not a gimmick. There is diversity throughout the cast and management of the show. From production assistants, the writers' room, to camera operators, episodic directors and more, there are people of color and/or women making "Pitch" happen.

"What we show on television and in films is vital to the people that watch them," Bunbury said.

Tommy Garcia/Fox

The fictional Baker pitches for the San Diego Padres.

The burden of leading a groundbreaking show as a woman of color heightens both the expectations and pressure put on Bunbury. Her being able to pitch well is essential to the show's success. If the audience doesn't buy into her enough to be able to suspend their own disbelief, the show is dead in the water.

"We've all seen Tim Robbins in 'Bull Durham'," she said with a laugh. "So if I just don't ... do that, I'll be good."

Every pitch Bunbury throws is essential to Ginny Baker as a character. Baker is not a miraculous find for the Padres. She's not Henry from the 1993 film "Rookie of the Year," a character who suffered a freak accident that gave him the ability to throw a 98 mph fastball at age 12. She's not an alien who touched a magic baseball and stole another pitcher's talent. Ginny Baker came through the Padres' farm system before being called up for her shot.

Even as she lets the taunts of "haters," as she calls them, roll off her back, Bunbury, as Ginny, is committed to being in top form.

While filming, she barely took lunch. She wanted to sneak in extra sessions with Gregg Olson, her pitching coach. Olson is a former MLB relief pitcher himself, winning the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1989. He worked with Bunbury two to three days a week during production. Before August, they practiced on a high school field, building up her arm strength and working on mechanics.

"I went into this not knowing what to expect at all, but she really put in the work." Olson said via phone. "She is an athlete, so she gets frustrated when she's not throwing well.

"Pitching is about duplication."

Pitchers have to be able to throw fastballs on the outside corner, and their mechanics need to be tuned enough to allow them to replicate that placement consistently. For Bunbury, the stakes are a bit higher. Every pitch she throws proves that she -- and by extension, women, particularly women of color -- is capable of achieving success in a man's game. Each time the ball smacks against the catcher's mitt, Bunbury sees the payoff of her hard work, the game she built from her own athleticism and efforts.

"She's amazing," Olson said.

Jessica Chou for ESPN

Bunbury exhaled as the scene wrapped.

When Ginny Baker walks out onto the mound in front of screaming fans, Kylie Bunbury will transform into an icon, much like her fictional counterpart. It does not matter that Ginny Baker is not a real person -- the hope that buoys her character is. And that very real thought is enough for Bunbury to feel bonded with this character. It is a journey they are taking together, actor and subject indistinguishable from one another.

"Ginny Baker is me in these imaginary circumstances," she said.

If Bunbury feels the pressure, she didn't allow it to show on set. She exited the scene with a bright smile on her face and immediately sat next to her real-life mother Kirsti, then placed her head on her mom's shoulder. Her mood was upbeat, bubbly even.

"I never want to change," Bunbury says, exhaling. This role, which is groundbreaking in terms of portraying a monumental moment for women in sports, is momentous for Bunbury herself. And she feels it. "I get nervous about that ... people thinking that I've changed just because the circumstances of my life have."

She looked out the window of Arguella's office for a split second. There was nothing beyond the glass except the man-made set on Stage 28 at Paramount Studios. Then she took a deep breath, centering herself, which she does before starting each scene.

"But if I continue to put the work in and lead with love, I'm good. I'm chillin'."

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