Originally created 09/23/04

CBS baseball series uses effects to keep things real



LOS ANGELES - The new series "Clubhouse" - about a teenager who's a batboy for a major league team - may use sports as a metaphor for life, but the producers know the action on the field still has to look authentic.

That was fairly easy to pull off in the pilot, in which Dodger Stadium served as the stand-in for the fictional New York Empires' ballpark.

But subsequent episodes have to rely on a home plate constructed on a turntable on a studio set, occasional trips to a small college field and computer generated graphics.

Executive producer Ken Topolsky slips a tape into the video machine in his office. It illustrates how at-bat footage, shot with a few actors against a green screen, can be digitally enhanced to place cheering - or booing - crowds in the stands.

Daniel Cerone, the show's head writer and another executive producer, concedes there were "a lot of sleepless nights" in the weeks before they saw how well such virtual reality worked.

"The technology is just at the point where special effects are not being used so much to do the extraordinary but the ordinary," Cerone says. "I would argue that this series, even three years ago, couldn't have been done without actually going to a regular ballpark and filling it with thousands of extras," a financial and logistical improbability for a TV series.

"If an audience doesn't believe the baseball, they don't believe the world. And if they don't believe the world, they don't believe the characters. And if they don't believe the characters, they don't care," says Topolsky, whose previous credits include the coming-of-age series "The Wonder Years" and "Party of Five."

"Clubhouse," from Aaron Spelling's production company, premieres 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS (WRDW-TV, Channel 12), then moves to its regular Tuesday 9 p.m. timeslot on Sept. 28.

Dean Cain (Clark Kent in "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures Superman") plays Conrad Dean, the Empire's slick superstar. Christopher Lloyd, who won two Emmys for his role on "Taxi," is Lou Russo, the irascible equipment manager. Jeremy Sumpter, who played the title role in last year's feature film "Peter Pan," is the batboy, Pete Young. Mare Winningham is his mother, Lynne, who has raised Pete and his sister alone since their father left years ago.

Sumpter's face still retains its lost-boy sweetness, though he has grown a tad since he flew around with Wendy and Tinkerbell.

"He's just a kid who loves baseball, was introduced to it by his father," the 15-year-old actor says of his character. "And baseball is what keeps alive for Pete memories of his dad. Baseball is Pete's dad basically."

Despite such layering, the producers insist the show isn't an overly sentimental peak behind the scenes of the professional game, but neither is it a sensationalized expose.

"We are not 'Playmakers.' We don't want to be 'Playmakers,'" says Cerone, referring to the short-lived ESPN drama series about the seamier aspects of pro football. "But on the other hand we do want to show the baseball world as it exists," says Cerone.

In the pilot episode, steroid use is a major plot point. In another episode, there are cigars, porn magazines and beer in the clubhouse where the batboys are unsupervised.

"We are just presenting a reality. But the flip side is that in each episode we are a focusing on the boy's character and ... that there are consequences to actions," says Cerone.