In Clubhouse New York baseball player Dean Cain looks after a cute, vulnerable batboy. The kid is an earnest 16-year-old, Pete Young (a wide-eyed Jeremy Sumpter), who's all agog at meeting his dugout idols in the fictional New York Empires, foremost among them the star third baseman, Cain's Conrad Dean. I hadn't seen much of Cain since Lois & Clark went off the air; his face is a bit thicker, and he's gained a little of the sort of heft that suits his role as a veteran ballplayer. (And he did play college football in his pre-Superman days.) Everything about him is convincing, in fact, except his character's name -- Conrad? Seems like if you were an athlete saddled with a WASPy moniker like that, you'd grasp at any nickname: ''Digger'' Dean, maybe, or ''The Con Man'' or something.
As for our stripling hero Pete, he's pleasingly innocent without being cloying -- a welcome contrast to all the wiseacre teens who pollute prime time. But my daughter, who's close to Sumpter's age, says she'd never watch a show with a kid who seemed so perpetually callow (I think she was not-so-gently implying ''square''). From the way Clubhouse is written, I think it'll be more attractive to the older demo CBS has been trying to shed the past few seasons. The series is cluttered with producers, ranging from Mel Gibson to Aaron Spelling to Party of Five's Ken Topolsky; they conspire to make an old-fashioned family hour. It features Taxi's Christopher Lloyd as a grouchy equipment manager (a bitter old coot who has to make sure the team has fresh towels -- there's a guy we want to watch every week), and some good-natured hazing: As the new kid in the clubhouse, Pete is dispatched to find a ''bat stretcher.''
There's also the woeful misuse of the marvelous Mare Winningham as Pete's mom. Although set in the present day, Clubhouse styles Winningham's working-class, single-mother character as though she'd just come from chewing the fat with Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners, and saddles her with a thankless role: a worrywart mom who wants her son to abandon his dream job. But Winningham can't help but seem smart, so it's not believable that she'd doubt her son in the premiere's absurd steroids dilemma. (Pete is positioned to take the fall for possession of drugs that actually belong to a player.) The plot turns on the intervention of Conrad Dean to reassure her, setting up an underwhelming future for the series, in which the ballplayer protects the batboy.