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OC Register: Hoornstra: Baseball as scripted television takes another turn ‘On Deck’

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Petco Park hosted the 2016 All-Star Game. Like a lot of young men in San Diego who grew up playing and watching baseball, Alex Bentley was eager to get inside. He once snuck into Comic-Con. He’d meandered onto a few movie sets in his day. But he was about to live out a fantasy too wild to be real.

“Long story short, I get into the (American League) clubhouse,” Bentley said. “I tell the attendant I need a uniform (because) the Royals’ catcher might let me catch the Home Run Derby. He gives me an (Jose) Altuve jersey. I took his locker. I’m like 22, doing something 99 percent of major leaguers don’t get to do. I’m there in uniform. I got to be on the field with (Josh) Donaldson, (Mike) Trout, Mookie (Betts), Papi (David Ortiz). Everybody and their mother is there.”

It gets better.

A crowd standing behind the American League dugout caught sight of a strangely taller, more hirsute Altuve. They shouted his name, hoping to toss him their baseballs for an autograph. Bentley obliged. Sort of. He scribbled a variety of signatures – Pablo Escobar, George Bush, Jesus, El Chapo – until the crowd was satisfied.

“I signed about 280 autographs on the spot,” Bentley said. “I didn’t want to let the kids down.”

These days Bentley is living out another fantasy, only this time he isn’t sneaking in the back door. He is developing a television series about a baseball player with a simple goal: to not be like any television series about a baseball player you’ve ever seen.

That’s probably a good thing. As a muse for scripted television, baseball has frustrated everyone from Steven Bochco to Jim Bouton. Remember the 1993 adaptation of the film “A League of Their Own?” Probably not. The series only lasted six episodes before it was canceled by CBS.

Bentley says he hasn’t watched many entries in the genre.

“I already know what these fools did that made them unsuccessful,” he said.

The muse for “On Deck,” originally conceived as a six-episode series, was Bentley’s own experience in baseball. As a youth, he played for Team Israel, where he lived for a time with his Moroccan-Israeli mother. He moved back to the United States as a teenager, spent a few years away from baseball after high school to study film, then returned to play at San Diego City College under head coach Chris Brown in 2015-16. His only professional experience came overseas in Europe and Mexico.

Speaking on set Wednesday morning, Bentley said the idea for “On Deck” took shape in 2019, his final year playing professionally.

“On Deck” creator Alex Bentley, pictured, secured cameos from current major leaguers such as San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. and agent Scott Boras for the pilot season of his scripted series about a former player struggling to embrace the next chapter of his life. (Photo courtesy of ondeckseries.com)

“I got canned in Germany before the season even started,” he recalled. “It was a (lousy) ending. That kind of inspired the struggle Jaedin Hill, the main character, goes through. I had the same amount of downward spiraling, ‘it didn’t end on my terms,’ this and that. I ended up going to play in Mexico. I’d like to play a few more games for Team Israel this summer, and retire with Israel across my chest.”

Originally, Bentley envisioned a story arc encompassing six 10-minute episodes. He was prepared to film all six and distribute them for free on Instagram’s IGTV.

At the urging of his mentors, Bentley said he shifted his focus to filming a Season 1 trailer, then pitching the trailer to a network or streaming service. The trailer is still in development. It’s an ambitious goal for a baseball show in 2021, but Bentley isn’t going it alone.

Last year he reached out to Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. via Instagram. Would he be interested in making a cameo in “On Deck”? Tatis’ two-word response – “I’m listening…” – ultimately resulted in him participating in parts of three episodes. At the 2019 Winter Meetings in San Diego, Bentley secured cameos from agent Scott Boras, broadcaster Harold Reynolds, and veteran outfielder Adam Jones. Jerry Hairston Jr., now a SportsNet LA analyst, signed on as a co-producer.

Together, that group has decades of experience in baseball from multiple vantage points. How did a 20-something showrunner with an unimposing IMDB page secure their participation? Bentley believes his vision of a true-to-life series about a retired player struggling to embrace the next chapter of his life was a compelling pitch.

Hairston described the series as “a genuine, real-life baseball experience. Authentic.”

In a recent interview with a San Diego television station, Jones echoed the same issue Bentley found with previous attempts at turning baseball into scripted TV.

“All they get to see is us playing baseball or fishing or hunting and stuff like that,” Jones said. “They don’t really get to see a lot of the normalcies that come with the athletes because they put us on such a pedestal. Whenever we do something normal, it’s like ‘Oh, why are you normal?’”

The last scripted baseball series to debut on American television, “Pitch,” told a fictional story about the first female baseball player to reach the major leagues. The series had the backing of dozens of industry insiders, as well as Major League Baseball itself. The league permitted the producers of “Pitch” to depict the true-to-life San Diego Padres as the main character’s home team. Fox dropped the series after one season.

While he was playing for San Diego City College, Bentley was cast as an extra in “Pitch.” His character only had one line, but he spent enough time on set to catch the series’ shortcomings, and where his show can make a difference in the genre.

“On Deck” is still waiting its turn to bat, but it promises to be a more realistic presentation than, say, Alex Bentley in a Jose Altuve jersey.

“There’s an internal core audience that, if you make them happy, the general population will catch on as well,” Bentley said. “For baseball, it’s baseball families, players – there’s millions of us just here in the U.S. They’re going to be taken care of for once.”

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