Film Review: Knuckleball!

It's an off-day, so here's a review of the baseball documentary, 'Knuckleball!', currently playing on cable, and also available through Netflix streaming.

I've always like knuckleballers. In an era when everything seems geared to harder, stronger, faster, they feel like a throwback to the "pure" origins of baseball, when pitchers lobbed the ball casually toward the batter, who at one point had the right to call for a low or high pitch. There's a sense that knuckleballers are just like us, in comparison to the superhumans who throw the ball close to 100 mph [even if, in reality, even the 65 mph velocity of a typical knuckler is probably higher than most of us rank amateurs could manage]. But the best thing about the knuckler is probably watching superstar professionals swing wildly and miss entirely, like Sunday beer-league hackers.

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, the directors of this, seem to share the fascination, and give us an insight into the fragile world of those few, those happy few, the band of brothers who have been able to obtain a certain degree of control over the pitch, and use it to earn a living in the major-leagues. But, as is made clear, you never truly "master" the pitch: it's one which relies on the random fluctuation caused by air eddies and currents for its effect (if the pitcher doesn't know what the ball is going to do, how the hell can the batter?), and those who throw it can lose the ability to be effective with it for a pitch, an inning, a game or even weeks on end.

The film focuses on the two acolytes of the knuckler, in the majors during the 2011 season: Tim Wakefield, nearing the end of his career but questing to reach the 200-win milestone, and R.A. Dickey, the journeyman who bounced around the majors for close to a decade, before he became adept enough with the pitch to become the Mets' Opening Day pitcher. Neither season goes exactly to plan: Wakefield opens the year as the mop-up man in the Red Sox bullpen, and even when he gets the chance to start, just can't seem to win. Dickey, meanwhile, loses his feel for the pitch and by mid-May is 1-5 with an ERA over five.

Dickey, in particular, is fascinating. Drafted in the 1st-round, the Rangers withdrew their original offer after a medical showed no UCL in his right elbow; he shouldn't barely be able to turn a doorknob. Like many who use the pitch, it was largely done as an act of desperation, a Hail Mary to try and extend their careers. In Dickey's case, it worked, rescuing him and his (long-suffering, I'd guess!) wife from a series of one-year contracts and a nomadic life as he chased his dream. Wakefield is slightly different, in that he was originally drafted not as a pitcher, but a corner-infielder. However, he was forced to become a pitcher by the Pirates, and his knuckleball proved key to his success.

What comes over particularly strongly in the film is the bond that unites knuckleballers. While it's hard to imagine Tim Lincecum helping Clayton Kershaw work on his fastball, that's not the case with this pitch - Dickey credits Wakefield, as well as those who came before, with being not just an inspiration, but of direct assistance in the ongoing process of taming the wild beast. Knucklers know they're an engangered species - right now, Dickey is the only true knuckler in the majors, though Angels pitcher Robert Coello throws something not dissimilar, in its lack of spin. That seems to over-ride team loyalties or concern about helping the opposition.

Like most baseball docs, it's a snapshot of a period in time, which is both a strength and a weakness: while Wakefield's quest for #200 does provide some impetus, they missed out by a year in what would have been a far more dramatic season for Dickey, his 2012 Cy Young winning season. I'd probably also have appreciated more background: while there are interviews with a number of other knuckleball pitchers, you don't really get much sense of their place in baseball history. But it remains a worthwhile watch, and opens the door into the strange Church of the Knuckleball and its practitioners. Here's the trailer:


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