Talk about disappearing into a character! Mark-Paul Gosselaar, a.k.a. Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell, went the expected route and parlayed his good looks into leading-man roles in NYPD Blue, CSI, Raising the Bar and Franklin & Bash. But at 42, he’s packed on the pounds and stopped shaving for his latest role: San Diego Padres star catcher and team captain Mike Lawson, who’s suddenly saddled with a headline-grabbing but inexperienced female rookie pitcher in Pitch, which premieres on FOX tonight (8/7c).

The show follows Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury), who’s called up from the minors to play for the Padres (no fake team names here—MLB gave its blessing and full cooperation), and explores what that means for the team, sports and America.

Gosselaar was on board with whatever it took to make Lawson believable, from intensive training to the physical transformation, despite the unfortunate side effect of less action in the bedroom. Here, he weighs in on the part, its perks and his facial “homegrown contraceptive.”

“People see me now and think that I left the business or I just don’t give a shit anymore.”

What drew you to Pitch and your character, Mike Lawson?
A really fantastic script. It’s beautifully written. It leaves you wanting more after you put it down. I wanted to know what happened to these characters. It was a water cooler script. Those are the ones you want to fight for. Mike reminded me of [Hall of Fame catcher] Mike Piazza. He was someone I admired growing up. I could relate to the character. I could relate to Ginny’s relationship with her father. I could relate to the age that Mike is. He’s a vet at the end of his career and I could relate to him having to deal with these younger guys coming in and moving up, and having to struggle to keep his position. Also, after a sitcom last year [Truth Be Told], I wanted to go the complete opposite way and do something more complex.

Do you remember when you felt like a rookie on set?
Sure. I understand the anxiety that comes with it, the need to succeed, to make everyone believe that you belong there—those are things I still struggle with to this day when I walk on a set. I had to do a two-page monologue in front of the Padres, and they’d never seen me act, only seen me play. I had the nerves, wanting to succeed in front of these guys and prove that I belong there. So I do understand what Ginny goes through.

Mike is pretty hard on Ginny at first.
No, Mike is hard on anybody that comes up and is going to be starting in their first game as a rookie. Gender is not even an issue at that point. It’s, “We need to win the game. What are you going to bring to the table?” And in the first game when she decides to throw in the towel, it doesn’t matter who the player is, you gotta get the fuck off the field. So yeah, he was hard on her, but not because of her gender. He’s the captain, and he demands a lot of his players. And he thinks, “We don’t need the distraction or the baggage that’s going to come with her.”

Did you watch any baseball movies for inspiration?
No. I made sure that I didn’t watch a lot of things that I grew up watching for fear that we’d try to match something we couldn’t match. We just worked with our technical advisors on the script, making sure that the show would give Major League Baseball the authenticity it needed. That’s why we went through extensive training. We’re still in training, about two or three times, minimum, a week. We just immerse ourselves into the world of baseball. We’re constantly texting each other photos of proper batting stances. For me, as a kid who grew up in the industry and who also always wanted to be a professional athlete, it’s like the best of both worlds.

You wanted to be a pro baseball player?
No, football.

Catchers often have problems with their knees. How are yours?
Great. Actually in the story, Mike’s knees are going. I talked to [Atlanta Braves catcher] A.J. Pierzynski about his knees and some other things. His knees are great too, but he’s 39 and what bothers both of us are our hips, so we have to do a lot more exercise. But it’s your fingers, from catching 80, 90 mile an hour pitches—they just go dead after a while.

Do you follow any teams?
I follow players more than I follow teams. [San Francisco Giants catcher] Buster Posey’s probably one of the guys that I really hope does well. A lot of Padres players too.

You filmed the pilot at Petco Park, their stadium.
We shot all of it, three weeks there. Now we’re filming at Paramount. We built the clubhouse. It’s incredible, an exact replica on a stage. But everything we do on the field is done at a Major League Stadium, so we were at Chavez Ravine for a Dodgers game. We shot there for a day, and we’ll go back to Petco and do more episodes.

What’s it like to be out there on the field?
No matter what stadium you go to, they all take your breath away. These stadiums, there’s so much history, and they’re magical. Petco’s relatively new, and it’s so beautiful. Being an L.A. native, I’ve walked on the Dodgers’ field, but to actually go there when there’s no players, no crowd, and it’s just your field… my 12-year-old son and I played catch in the outfield, just him and I. On the drive home he said, “Dad, do you know what people would do to have the opportunity to do what we just did?”

You’re almost unrecognizable in this role, with the beard and the heft. How much weight did you gain?
I’ll keep that a secret because I may not qualify for life insurance. They always ask you, “Have you gained or lost five pounds in a year?” I’m like, “Five pounds? I’ve gained or lost that in a week!” It was substantial. To have a beard, to have the extra weight, it gives me the confidence that I’m stepping into the shoes of Mike Lawson, and it’s one extra thing that helps me play that character and be believable. These guys are 200 and above.

Do you like it? Does your wife?
I don’t have a curly beard, so it wasn’t sticking me. I got comfortable with it, within the first few months. It’s one of those things that I feel is such a part of the character. But she hates it. She says, “I didn’t buy you with the beard. I want the model without the beard.” We have four children and I think it will remain at four children, let me put it that way. It’s a homegrown contraceptive. The kids don’t like it either. My youngest [now 19 months] has never seen me without it.

Are you recognized less? What reaction do you get from other people?
Probably so. I think the question is, “Oh my God. Are you not acting anymore? What have you been doing with yourself?” They think that I left the business or I just don’t give a shit anymore.

Where does Pitch fit among your career highlights?
This is huge. It’s one of the biggest projects I’ve ever been a part of. We had two months or more to prepare for the roles, and for a television show that rarely happens. To be given the opportunity to work with Major League Baseball players and have that at our disposal is incredible.

Lead photo: Tommy Garcia/FOX