Q&A with Mark-Paul Gosselaar
How the actor transformed his appearance to become a MLB-worthy catcher.
Who does Mark-Paul Gosselaar root for at a Los Angeles Dodgers game? No, this isn’t the start of a joke. It was the conundrum he faced when he went to see his hometown team play the visiting Padres. His allegiance to San Diego is because in his new show, he plays the team's catcher. Pitch follows Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), the first woman baseball player called up to the majors. If the Gosselaar you were expecting is one akin to his teenage sitcom self—svelte, shaven and cheeky—you’re in for a surprise.
What attracted you to this project?
It’s a Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love.; Tangled) show, so you know you’re going to get some fantastic writing. You start reading the script and you fall in love with the characters and the concept, and you’re on board from the beginning. Then you get to the end and you wonder what happens from here, in her life and in the other characters’ lives. It was definitely the show I wanted.
How did you connect with the role of Mike Lawson?
I must admit, before the show I was a soft fan of baseball. I didn’t really have a team growing up. In L.A., we’re kind of fair-weather fans. I’m more of a player than a team fan. Lawson reminds me of catcher Mike Piazza. I was a fan of his, growing up. I know how hard it is to be the catcher—what it means to be the captain, to work with the pitchers—I thought the relationship between Lawson and Ginny Baker was something I wanted to see. Very few of these parts comes along where you say, "that’s what I want to do and I’ll do anything to get that part."
How did you prepare yourself for the role physically?
Physically, Dan Fogelman wanted me to put on some weight. He wanted me to look more believable as a catcher, not an actor playing a catcher. He also said, 'I’d also love you to grow a beard if possible.' There are a lot of players in baseball that are bearded and it gave a more grizzled, veteran look. So I started a program to put on weight, bulk up and grow a beard. And we immediately went into training. When I went to work with Kylie and her coaches, she’d already been in training for two or three months. Primarily, I was working on throwing mechanics. Having not played baseball in my high school years, I just didn’t have the proper mechanics. I worked with some catchers to get the stance and positioning down, and worked with pitchers as well to see different pitches—fastballs, two-seam fastball, slider, cutter—to make sure I was comfortable behind the plate.
Did you speak with any baseball players to really get into the role?
Chad Kreuter was available to me, as was A.J. Pierzynski, to talk about—believe it or not—the mental side of the sport. I’ve worked with a few minor league guys; guys that had made it to the majors for a year or two and are now in some of our backgrounds on the show. They’re the Padres infield and outfield. We have an actual Padres team. It was important to Major League Baseball [which was involved in production] for the show to look as authentic as possible and not look like a bunch of actors.
Pitchers and catchers have a unique relationship, and a sort of special language between them. Did you develop that with Kylie Bunbury?
Yes—it took a while. During training, after working on mechanics, I had to work on the catching side of the sport so we were separated, then came back for the pilot. There was a point when I hadn’t played catch with her in a while and I had a hard time throwing the ball back to her. It was a mental thing. I put too much pressure on myself to get the ball back to her. If you guide the ball it’s not going to go where you want it to go. I had the yips. Then I just said, "fuck it, I’m just going to whip it to her." And I got over it.
What was it like to come to this sport later in life?
The only reason I never played baseball is that at a young age I was already working and by the time I got to high school I was working on Saved By the Bell. I was into the sports that were solitary and solo. My older brother was very involved in motocross so he put me on a bike, which led to racing cars, then I went into cycling. Flying was just another hobby because I geek out about technology and precision and things like that. But I have a lot more respect for baseball now than when we started this. It’s a lot harder than it looks. What you see on TV, it seems like they have a lot of time between innings and the action. I guess I can only speak on behalf of the catcher, but the catchers get beat up. You think about it: A starting pitcher throws 70 to 100 pitches and the catcher throws it back every time, possibly throwing it to second base, first base, third base. He’s in that awkward position. Then he’s batting. You’re taking fly balls off the mask, taking wild pitches and hitting your wrists. The other thing people don’t talk about is that baseball players are on the road so much and it’s hard to stay physically and mentally in shape for that long of a period. There are, what, 162 games in a regular season? It’s incredibly long.
For the past two years, an overarching question in the country has been: Are we ready for a woman president? So, do you think America is ready for a woman major league baseball player?
Absolutely. But I don’t think I initially saw that potential when I first read the script. At first, I saw a very good story, written very well, with characters you wanted to root for. But when we started the process and getting more and more involved in that angle, it’s just like, wow, we’re doing something that’s at the right time for it to happen. I never like to do things for the message, but there’s a message here. It’s a message I would love to have my two daughters and two sons to pick up on and adopt. I’d love for my daughters to walk away from this and feel empowered. And for my sons to learn and be empowered as well.