On the baseball diamond behind 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles, James Caan is consoling 11-year-old Riley Kehoe. It’s the second week of production on ABC’s new Little League comedy, Back in the Game, and the camera has just stopped rolling on a scene in which Riley collides with his twin brother and fellow actor, Griffin. Riley hit the dirt hard, so Caan steps in with a bit of advice. “Next time, take him out,” the Godfather star whispers. “You have my permission.”
You wouldn’t think it from the tough-guy parts he’s known for, but Caan is a natural with the 9- to 11-year-olds who are portraying Game’s quart-size ballplayers. “It just shows,” says costar Maggie Lawson (Psych) from the sidelines. “He coaches them and gives them pointers. He is so much fun to be around.” That is until he turns into his character, Terry “the Cannon” Gannon Sr., the cranky, beer-guzzling ex-major league baseball player with a salty tongue.
Game concerns the return home of Terry Jr. (Lawson), a divorced single mom who is forced to reconcile with her estranged widowed dad in exchange for a place to live. Dad wasn’t ready to raise a little girl after his wife died; his response to his daughter’s becoming a woman was, “Walk it off.” “He’s a guy who’s agitated all the time,” says Caan. “With that comes a lot of sarcasm and anger.”
Terry Jr. loathes her pop’s beloved baseball, even though she went on to become an All-American college-softball star. But when her 10-year-old son, Danny (Griffin Gluck), doesn’t make the cut for Little League, she volunteers to coach the Angles, a team for him and all the other rejects. “On most teams, you have your proverbial ringer,” says exec producer Aaron Kaplan. “On this team, there are no ringers.” So the Cannon offers Terry his expertise. “Baseball is exactly what tore them apart,” Lawson says. “Now, through it, they’re coming back together.”
Creators Mark and Robb Cullen (Las Vegas), who spent six years coaching Mark’s two sons on teams in Southern California, have plenty of fodder for the series. In fact, a girl from one of their teams was the inspiration for Terry Jr. “She was fantastic and loved baseball,” he remembers. “She actually tried out for the boys’ team in high school.” The Cullens say some parents will recognize their children — and themselves — on screen. Lulu Lovette (Lenora Crichlow), the glamorous heiress who funds the Angles so her effeminate son (J.J. Totah) can play, is based on the wife of a big Hollywood producer.
To create the Cannon, the brothers Cullen looked to their late father, who was their own enthusiastic Little League coach. “I got hit in the leg with a pitch,” Robb remembers, “and he told me, ‘If you don’t hit that kid in the face with the ball, you’re not getting in the car.’” He had it easy. “Dad would make me go outside,” Mark says, “and I wasn’t allowed back in until I threw the ball 1,000 times against the wall.” They wrote both of these stories into the pilot. What would their dad think if he could see his sons’ show? “He would have killed us,” says Mark, before adding, “or would have wanted a payment.”
When the Cullens contacted their old Las Vegas star Caan, it was the first time the actor had ever been asked to headline a TV comedy — but not his first experience with Little League baseball. Caan coached his son Scott’s team in the 1980s. “I had the best time ever,” he says about helping the Hawaii Five-0 star, who happens to be visiting the set today. And the 73-year-old Caan admits he had Cannon-like instincts: He once chased two umpires over a fence with a bat.
Caan stresses that Game isn’t The Bad News Bears redux. It’s not about a team that will work hard and get better. “They’re the biggest bunch of misfits ever. They’re never going to win a game, probably for the entire run of the show,” he predicts. Game also isn’t primarily about kids’ sports. “The backdrop is baseball, but it’s not a baseball show,” Mark says. So expect to see fewer games and more scenes of Terry trying to find romance while living with the man who crashed his car into her prom date.
On the home front, the Cannon will be spending a lot of time with Danny. “He’s got the boy he’s always wanted, and he gets to corrupt him, which is fantastic,” says Mark.
Gluck sees it differently. “The Cannon,” he says, “is teaching Danny basically how not to suck in life and in baseball.” Even if that means learning how to steal razor blades and batteries? Either way, the 13-year-old actor feels he and the rest of the Angles are winners. “It’s pretty cool,” he points out, “to be able to grow up and say to a friend, ‘I was taught baseball by Jimmy Caan.’”
Back in the Game premieres Wednesday, Sept. 25 at 8:30/7:30c on ABC.