Bay City Blues, NBC's much-touted new venture into TV vérité, understands the minor leagues so well that it hurts. This show is life on a backwater team, warts and all, brought faithfully to prime-time television. The producers didn't even forget the graffiti on the toilet-stall doors. And did you catch Angelo Carbone, the sleazy but essentially decent Bay City pitching coach? The real bushes are full of Carbones—as well as drunkards, has-beens, dumb guys, good guys, baseball Annies and lonely wives. Such characters are supposed to make Bay City appealing to sports purists and non-fans alike. As the show's co-creator, Steven Bochco, says, "Most of us lead Double A lives."
There's one hitch, though. For the most part, Double A tales are far from riveting. Will leftfielder Terry St. Marie conquer his bedwetting problem? Will Pitcher Mick Wagner lay off the booze? Will Manager Joe Rohner find love with the banker's wife—or mere sexual satisfaction? Steamy questions, maybe, but not of the kind that compels us to tune in every Tuesday night. Bochco himself recognizes the difference between Bay City and his explosive Emmy Award-winning police drama, Hill Street Blues. "There's nothing in the concept of Bay City that allows us to be as overtly dramatic," he says. "Most minor league players are 18 to 25. The scope of their interests is very narrow."
Give Bay City this, however: It's honest to the bone. Bochco and co-creator Jeffrey Lewis got the idea for the program in July 1982 while watching an old-timers' game at Dodger Stadium. How could they capture baseball's appeal and essence in a TV series? By creating the Class AA Bluebirds, a group of phenoms and reclamation projects who, in the succinct words of Bluebirds owner and used-car salesman Ray Holtz, "don't have squat." The show's triumphs are its believability, its acting, the care with which it has been cast and the wistfulness of its writing. As Holtz, a moneygrubber but a big softie, says to his manager at one point, "Ah, Joseph, so I dream. So what the hell's life without 'em?"
NBC bought 13 Bay City shows without so much as seeing a pilot, a remarkable testimony to its faith in Bochco's talent. Each episode costs close to $1 million to produce, in large part because of his attention to detail. "They check so much that our phones are ringing off the hook," says Bob Sparks, a spokesman for official baseball's minor leagues.
November 7, 1983
To tape baseball sequences around the clock, Bochco and his MTM production bosses leased land from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and built their own 1,300-seat park—distance to centerfield, 330 feet; down the lines, 285—for $500,000. Some actors throw like girls and swing like William Bendix did in The Babe Ruth Story, so technical director Frank Pace, a former semipro player, put the cast through four weeks of intensive drills. Of the army of actors considered for the 16-member cast, Pace says, "Three people couldn't cut it on the field for every one that did." In real life, the Bluebirds might now be able to beat a decent high school team. Even the mascot, the Bluebird of Happiness, might be a match for the San Diego Chicken.
Not surprisingly, athletic threads run all through Bay City. Ozzie Peoples, the 44-year-old hanger-on, is portrayed by Bernie Casey, an offensive end with the Rams and 49ers in the '60s. Barry Tubb, the boozing pitcher, was a junior rodeo champion. Thad Mumford, who left the show after writing the achingly sensitive second episode, was a Yankee bat boy in the late '60s. The one non-jock or non-fan seems to be Flashdance star Michael Nouri, who plays the father-confessor figure of Rohner. "He had only a nodding acquaintance with baseball," says Pace. The antidote for such a rube: lengthy bull sessions about life in the minors with bush league graduates Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre. Nouri has modeled his character on Torre.
Rohner also bears a striking resemblance to Hill Street's Captain Frank Furillo. In fact, Bay City, which started as badly in the ratings as Hill Street did two years ago, frequently imitates Bochco's first success, from the character portraits to the Venetian blinds in the manager's office. Both shows are beautifully done, a class above the drivel so often dished up by the networks in prime time. But, by definition, Bay City will always lack the angst of Hill Street. "I just hope the show is recognized in human terms," says Bochco. "It's not a bunch of jocks and their wives. It speaks to all our lives, our dreams, our fantasies." That's just the problem. Double A lives, inside baseball and out, are rarely compelling.