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New Fox series stirs hazy memories of 1980 Studio Arena play

It happened 36 years ago so you’ll have to forgive my memory for being hazy.

In 1980, the late and much-lamented Studio Arena Theater had just moved into the theater where Dewey Michaels had relocated The Palace Burlesque in his last-ditch attempt to forestall history. It was a major Buffalo event.

The Studio Arena play honoring the occasion was written by a playwright named Mark Berman, whose subsequent career has not exactly been written in neon. It was called “Lady of the Diamond.”

On the other hand, the stars of the play and its director went on to have huge careers in theater. The actors turned into beloved standards in TV and movies – Christine Baranski and John Goodman, two of the best character actors alive in America at the moment wherever you put them,

The director of the production was Jack O’Brien who went on to win three Tonys, one for “Hairspray.”

Baranski played Connie Weaver, the first female baseball pitcher on a professional team. The most significant figure in the team locker room was Goodman, playing a power hitter named Bomber.

I reviewed the play, but don’t ask me to remember too much about it because the play seemed gimmicky and instantly forgettable, even though its premise was nothing but appealing.

But as forgettable as the play was, that’s how charismatic were Baranski and Goodman, who bellowed in the locker room “no midgets, no monkeys, no broads.”

You couldn’t forget them. We’re talking about primordial career moments for both. They always stayed with me, as did the premise of the play.

The rest? Not so much.

Flash forward 36 years to the start of this TV season to a Fox series called “Pitch” about the first female baseball pitcher in the big leagues.

Her name is Ginny Baker and she’s played by a fine young actress named Kylie Bunbury. Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays the grizzled veteran catcher of the San Diego Padres. He’s her only supporter on the team but his knees are just barely going to allow him one or two more excruciating seasons at best.

“Pitch,” incredibly, is never cutesy. It’s about a moment surely only a few years away – when a woman breaks into Major League Baseball as an athlete. The Buffalo Bills already have the first female football coach working on special teams.

Obviously, football is not exactly a likely sport for a female player to make a stand in the NFL. But “Pitch” ingeniously imagines the first female player in the major leagues – a pitcher who admits that her 87-mph fastball isn’t going to intimidate major league hitters but who possesses enough breaking stuff to make life difficult for guys standing at home plate with a bat in their hands.

Anyone who wanted to could turn “Pitch” inside out and upside down, hooting and howling at every one of its offenses against realism.

Funny thing, though. Major League Baseball is in on “Pitch.” They’re all for it.

Unlike “Lady of the Diamond,” I doubt this will give me much trouble remembering it precisely because it tries to imagine some things that might happen when a young woman becomes a functional pitcher, thereby turning America upside down the way Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama did.

Ali Larter plays Ginny Baker’s ambitious glamourpuss agent, who knows that “Ginsanity” in American sports will make her client into one of the biggest continuing stories in the country. Dan Lauria plays the team manager whose brain is having trouble wrapping itself around a female player in a major league locker room and team bus. And Bob Balaban is nicely chilly and toxic as a snaky owner whose dollars and cents mentality is the opposite of Branch Rickey when he made Jackie Robinson a major leaguer.

“Pitch” sneaked up on me. What was more than a little cutesy and gimmicky when it took place on a Buffalo Theater stage 36 prophetic years ago has turned into appealing and even engrossing television.

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So too am I enjoying Michael Weatherly in “Bull,” the series about a trial and jury consultant based somewhat on Phil McGraw, who is one of the creators of the show.

Here too we have what was once American cutesiness in full flower being brought into something that, for a few seconds every episode, resembles prime-time plausibility.

That is distinguished completely from reality, but at least Weatherly no longer has to yammer on throughout “NCIS” as the most sophomoric movie fan on the East Coast.

So far on the show, he’s been doing his best to hide the smirk that was DeNozzo’s trademark on “NCIS.”

It’s in there somewhere, though. I’m just hoping that when the time comes for the show to bring it back out of mothballs for a little comic relief, Weatherly is smart enough to use it sparingly and not as an old friend we in the audience needed to get through Tuesday nights.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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