Directed by Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg
Featuring R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough
In baseball, the knuckleball has long been regarded as the most volatile of pitches, as something between gimmick and trickery. In an age of enhanced saber metrics, where statistical emphasis is at its highest, the 50-80 mph wind dancing baseball finds little to no place in the modern incarnation of America’s pastime. Engrossing and unexpectedly comprehensive documentary ‘Knuckleball’ presents the temperamental pitch from its baffling potential to its determined stubbornness through the human stories of the men who hurled it the best.
The knuckleball’s unpredictable trajectory has provided unimaginable hot streaks and the pits of competitive despair (see Aaron Boone’s Game 7 winning home run off Wakefield in the 2003 ALCS as an example) but, as with most things, with great patience comes great reward.
About 80 men have thrown a successful, in-game knuckleball and far fewer have with it as their trademark, if not singular, pitch. Of those few (at the time of production) only two remained active in the major leagues; 17-year-old veteran Boston Red Sox Tim Wakefield, eyeing a career defining 200 wins and the resurgent New York Mets journeyman R.A. Dickey.
The film comes especially timely off the heals of a Cy Young worthy 2012 campaign for Dickey, as well as his becoming something of a cultural phenomenon since stumbling his way into Flushing. Since his 2010 call up, Dickey has found his first guaranteed multi-year contract and released a tell all memoir all en route to a 19 win season and the responsibility of being the sole purveyor of the ostensible pitch in question.
Wakefield, on the other hand, finds himself at the tail end of a highly respectable and lucrative career. Walking away from the game as the all time winningest pitcher of the storied Red Sox franchise, as well as having earned the unflinching appreciation of its faithful, Wakefield has enjoyed a life built from impeccably manicured fingertips and quarter inch rotations.
‘Knuckleball’ comes as the definitive film on the (admittedly niche) subject. It is a stunningly shot and edited, simple sports film; balancing the inherent competitiveness of the professional athlete, as both on-field and at-home life is affected. Its charm is its willingness to highlight the friendship, mentorship and fraternity formed between histories four most recognizable knuckleballers, as well as humanizing the all the men beneath the uniform. Both ex-Yankee Phil Niekro and ex-Ranger Charlie Hough, each of whom enjoyed significant career extension from the pitch, and in Niekros case a place in the Hall of Fame, mentored Wakefield and Dickey. The congenial banter between the men is something of a privilege to behold.
Acclaimed Documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (‘The End of America’, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work’) expertly find the parallel between the volatile nature of the pitch itself and the volatile nature of career, family and dreams. Dickey, for instance, finds himself drafted as a college phenom only to discover he misses an entire piece of elbow ligament, in a case that baffles doctors to this day. By using a wealth of old video footage, photographs, an impressive roster of interview subjects and fly-on-the-wall access to the personal and professional lives of all involved, the filmmakers present the players at their most human and honest with the pitch treated in the same manner.
‘Knuckleball’ should find its way into the conversation of preeminent sports documentaries. Though somewhat hindered by its limited scope of subject, it more then makes up for it with the all-encompassing explanation of its capabilities, with a handful of men’s lives as evidence.
– Steve Rickinson