“Killer instinct we got here, huh? Real closers. We’re up three runs, and they get us right where they want us. C’mon guys, we gonna make the playoffs or we just gonna yank our chains?”
–Manager Joe Rohner to his team, the Bay City Bluebirds
The elements of a successful show and a successful baseball team aren’t all that different. A few stars, a few utility people, timely hits, and the breaks falling your way all unite to make both a show and a group playing America’s Pastime winners. But when even one of those things is missing, the chances are very good your baseball team is going to have a rough season. And if you’re a television series, it just may be your only season.
So goes the lessons learned by the players of the Bay City Blues. The stories of “the boys of summer” became the stories of fall 1983 in this NBC series about the Bay City Bluebirds, a minor-league team filled with wanna-bes and might-have-beens. The show was created by Stephen Bochco, who’d set the world on fire with his revolutionary Hill Street Blues. NBC wanted another large-cast drama and, with a baseball team taking center stage, there were already plenty of people on deck to showcase.
Leading this rag-tag group was Bluebirds manager Joe Rohner (Michael Nouri), who had his hands more than full dealing with the volatile mix of personalities both in and out of his locker room. We first see him breaking up a fight between pitcher John “Frenchy” Nuckles (Perry Lang) and slumping hitter Rocky Padillo (Ken Olin) over the lack of hot water in the showers. That may seem like a small thing, but when you’re on a losing streak in the minors and you can see your career going down the toilet, things like a shower become the only respite from a very bad life, let alone a game.
Others find their own problems along the way. Team Owner Ray Holtz (Pat Corley) is losing money on the team hand-over-fist (and is the real reason for the hot water shortage for not paying the bills). He’s selling off players to other teams for the cash flow, leaving the Bluebirds with little talent and less chance of winning. The left-overs include Terry St. Marie (Patrick Cassidy), an up-and-coming pitcher with a secret only his wife Cathy (Sharon Stone) is aware of: he wets the bed. They live with “Frenchy” and his wife Judy (Michelle Greene) and fret over money woes, uncertain futures, and domestic strife.
“Are you going to leave me?”
–Judy and Frenchy, trying to figure out their relationship after a betrayal
The early ’80’s were also a time of conflict along racial lines, with African-Americans on the team facing their share of resistance from those whose definition of equality didn’t encompass anything outside the ballpark. While Linwood “Linoleum” Scott (Larry “Flash” Jenkins) and Deejay Cunningham (Mykel T. Williamson) could commiserate together, they didn’t always agree on how to combat their oppressors. First baseman Vic Kresky (Jeff McCracken) tries his best to keep his head down and just play the game, while catcher Lee Jacoby (Tony Spirdakis) has to be the field general for all these players, trying to make them work on the diamond as a team when they don’t get along in their personal lives.
Coach Angelo Carbone (Dennis Franz) is definitely from the old-school of baseball, to the point of teaching his pitchers the finer arts of the illegal spitball, while wily veteran player Ozzie Peoples (Bernie Casey) tries to be the voice of baseball reason in the clubhouse, whether his charges will listen or not. The “voice” of the team is play-by-play radio announcer Mitch Klein (Peter Jurasik), acting as a greek chorus for the antics of the team, privy to more information than most. And even the mascot Bird (Marco Rodriguez) gets into the act, making unwanted advances towards a fan while in the suit during a game.
With the scorecard set, let the games begin. Rohner ends up on the verge of an illicit relationship with Sunny Hayward (Kelly Harmon), the married acquaintance of the owner, causing trouble in the front office. Players maneuver other players to take their spots, both on the field and off. Wives and girlfriends change partners as often as hitters swing, and there always seems to be another “pitch”. And there are so many characters in the stadium, both between the foul lines and in the stands, that viewers easily got lost in the myriad possibilities. Like the initial fight, the baseball was soon forgotten in favor of the game of life.
Now, a complex series of human dramas is fine, if they’re given a decent framework to hang from. People complain about there being far too many cop, lawyer, and medical shows on the air each season, but there’s a very good reason for that. They’re “shorthand” franchises, in which a new story can walk in off the street each week for the series. Need a plot? Go chase a criminal… or go defend someone unjustly accused. Or save the life of someone who has an unusual disease. Writers use these “franchises” to reflect the character stories they wish to tell, with comfortable “hooks” for viewers who are familiar with the concept. They also provide jeopardy along the way to move the story forward.
But Bay City Blues had, as its “franchise”, the baseball team. Yes, the Bluebirds might gain new fans and new players, but they didn’t come with the shorthand used for “crooks”, “defendants”, or “patients”. More time had to be used in each characters development, or it became a muddled mess. Plus, Bay City Blues had an “opening credits” regular cast of SIXTEEN, plus assorted recurring and guest actors in each episode (the pilot itself focused on a player not even featured in the credits, yet he was in all eight episodes). It was difficult to present each individual with any build-up whatsoever. Audiences never developed the kind of relationships that let them identify with the emotions the characters went through… they were too busy trying to identify the actual characters!
You couldn’t tell the players without a scorecard. That might work in baseball, but on television, it’s game over.
“You’re a double-A has-been in a nowhere double-A town.”
–A major league scout to Rohner after he steals away a blue-chip prospect
It was overwhelming, even with talented actors and crew involved. At least on Hill Street Blues and later L.A. Law (both Bochco creations), one could be involved in the criminal story and see the regular characters bounce their situations off those touchstones. But the world of minor-league baseball just seemed much further away from the mass numbers of viewers necessary for a successful television series.
Even major-league baseball wasn’t much better at the time, with cable just beginning to reach a significant number of homes and the only regular network presence was the Saturday Game of the Week. It wasn’t until a few years later when Ted Turner turned his small Atlanta station into “Superstation WTBS” (now just TBS) that baseball and the hometown Atlanta Braves became “America’s Team”. Film recognized this revolution as well, with the advent of the classic minor-league baseball movie hit Bull Durham, but that was five years AFTER NBC aired Bay City Blues. The TV world of 1983 didn’t have much care for the exploits of a second-rate farm team full of faceless dreamers and drifters. NBC aired only four episodes of the drama, even though eight episodes were filmed. Some NBC affiliates showed these further episodes in a late-night timeslot on Sunday nights after their local news, almost the television definition of “the minor leagues”. For the Bay City Blues, the show had struck out.
MICHAEL NOURI (Joe Rohner) has been featured previously on this site for his role on Cliffhangers! He’s best known as the boss to the dancing Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, and had regular roles in Love and War and multiple soap operas. He’s also appeared in recurring roles on NCIS, Damages, Army Wives, and The O.C.
PERRY LANG (John “Frenchy” Nuckles) left acting behind in the ’90’s, becoming a director. He’s helmed episodes of Dark Skies, NYPD Blue, Popular, Alias, and Everwood. Most recently, he was a regular director for the ABC Family series Greek.
KEN OLIN (Rocky Padillo) found stardom on thirtysomething. He was also the lead on the critical favorite short-lived show EZ Streets, meaning he’ll likely be featured here again shortly. His recent ventures include producing and acting on ABC’s Brothers and Sisters.
PAT CORLEY (Ray Holtz) played the bar owner Phil on Murphy Brown, as well as also making the jump to Hill Street Blues after Bay City Blues ended. He died in 2006 of congestive heart failure.
PATRICK CASSIDY (Terry St. Marie) was born into the acting trade, as the son of The Partridge Family actress Shirley Jones and frequent television actor Jack Cassidy. In addition to multiple stage roles, he was most recently featured with his brother Shaun Cassidy and half-brother David Cassidy in ABC Family’s Ruby and the Rockits.
SHARON STONE (Cathy St. Marie) is a well-known movie actress, thanks to her “revealing” role in Basic Instinct. In addition to movie roles in Total Recall and Casino, she’s returned to the small screen on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
MICHELLE GREENE (Judy Nuckles) went directly from Bay City Blues to a regular role in the following season’s Bochco hit L.A. Law, earning an Emmy nomination for Supporting Actress along the way. After a brief singing career (and two multi-lingual albums), she’s recently appeared on CSI, Bones, and Big Love.
LARRY “FLASH” JENKINS (Linwood “Linoleum” Scott) went from one sports series to another, previously having been featured as a basketball player on The White Shadow. These days he’s busy writing and directing films aimed at the religious market, promoting positive values and the power of change and belief.
MYKEL T. WILLIAMSON (Deejay Cunningham) is better known as Mykelti Williamson, yet the original spelling was featured on his early TV and film work. In addition to his work in Forrest Gump, he returned to baseball in the HBO movie Soul of the Game, playing Negro League star Josh Gibson.
JEFF McCRACKEN (Vic Kresky) also found happiness behind the camera, producing and directing both Boy Meets World and Dinosaurs. His other love is horseriding and rodeo, developed during his childhood on the Texas ranch of his great-uncle.
TONY SPIRDAKIS (Lee Jacoby) also went into writing and producing. On television, his work was seen on In the Heights, while he’s been behind the movies Tinseltown, Queen’s Logic, and If Lucy Fell.
DENNIS FRANZ (Angelo Carbone) became noticed on Hill Street Blues, and became a star on NYPD Blue, both produced by Bay City Blues creator Stephen Bochco. He won four Emmy awards for his work on NYPD Blue and, except for a few small roles, has been retired from acting ever since.
BERNIE CASEY (Ozzie Peoples) was a former professional football player, with an eight-year career in the NFL before becoming an actor. A frequent TV guest star, he appeared in everything from Murder, She Wrote to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He’s also an accomplished artist and poet, with his work having been featured in many galleries.
PETER JURASIK (Mitch Klein) also made the jump from Bay City Blues to Hill Street Blues, featured as “Sid the Snitch” on the police series. He’s best known for playing the Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari on SF series Babylon 5.
MARCO RODRIGUEZ (Bird) also played multiple roles on not only Hill Street Blues but also Star Trek: The Next Generation, Nash Bridges, L.A. Law, and Renegade. He’s now playing a recurring character on the series Eastbound and Down.
KELLY HARMON (Sunny Hayward) is daughter of football star Tom Harmon and sister of actor Mark Harmon. Shortly after her run on Bay City Blues, she left acting to become an artist and designer, with her work now featured on the TV series Top Chef Masters as costume and wardrobe designer.
Bay City Blues isn’t available on DVD, one of those early ’80’s series that was made before home video became viable and contracts with cast and crew didn’t allow for those sorts of rights to be made available. The pilot is at the dailymotion site, similar to youTube but with occasional commercials interrupting the shows. The haunting theme is up on youTube however, done by the terrific Mike Post (who commented once that it was one of his favorite themes he’d ever written.
“I don’t understand it. Grown men playing a little boy’s game….”
–Sunny Howard, trying to make sense of the attraction between her and Joe
A baseball team, and the personal lives of the players, made for a unique and different milieu for a television show. Bay City Blues needed a bit more focus, perhaps, the type of focus that is more easily found in more typical franchise shows. But then, it would be much less special, much more ordinary, in the realm of typical television fare, and therefore something that would be more easily dismissed as “more of the same”. And that’s one thing that the struggling players of the Bay City Bluebirds wanted to make sure of… that they were different, they were of major league caliber instead of just journeyman players. Many of the actors involved in Bay City Blues found those big-league dreams, just not in the double-A confines of Bay City. Fortunately for them, there were other games yet to play.
4 aired episodes – 4 unaired (although these did air in some local markets)
First aired episode: October 25, 1983
Final aired episode: November 15, 1983
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Its time slot was Tuesdays at 10/9 Central, late enough that it was Bay City Blues that actually aired the first network shot of a naked rear end on a dramatic series, in the locker room. Much was made of this later when warnings were aired during another Bochco series, NYPD Blue, when the “supposed” first nude buttock shot was seen. But then, with the ratings Bay City Blues got, maybe no one noticed back then….
Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.