Audiences went crazy for Moneyball, a fictionalized version of the Oakland A’s 2002 season. While I was a big fan of Moneyball, it avoided telling the story from the eyes of the players. Knuckleball!, a new documentary from Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) explores the long legacy of major league baseball pitchers who, as a last resort to breathe life into their failing careers, turn to the game’s most unpredictable pitch.
For those who aren’t sure of what a knuckleball is, a majority of major league baseball pitchers base their offenses on pitch speed, which frequently hovers around 90 miles per hour. Knuckleball pitchers sacrifice speed for confusion, as a knuckleball might travel at just over half that speed but is probably far more difficult to hit since it changes direction mid-air. Because the pitch is so unpredictable, scouts and management typically dismiss knuckleball pitchers as a gimmick, however, successful knuckleball pitchers have careers which last years longer than typical pitchers and are frequently among the game’s oldest players. The Knuckleball! documentary primarily follows the only two major league knuckleball pitchers during the 2011 baseball season — Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets — and explores the careers of both men and how, desperate for success, they turned to the knuckleball.
While it’s obvious that it takes a certain mindset to throw a knuckleball, it also seems like you have to be a genuinely straight-up individual. Both Dickey and Wakefield are remarkably honest about their failures and weakness and candid about their ambition to succeed — they admit that learning the pitch was their last resort to save their dying careers.
Ultimately the documentary focuses more on Wakefield’s 2011 season and his pursuit of 200 career wins than Dickey’s season for reasons that should be obvious to baseball fans, though I won’t spoil it if you aren’t. But it’s remarkable how closely Dickey’s career parallels Wakefield’s, so he gets plenty of time to shine here, too. Comments from Dickey and Wakefield’s wives highlight the isolation their husbands feel from being knuckleball pitchers in a game that generally doesn’t trust them, and Dickey and his wife recount how he jumped from minor league team to major league team and from state to state to fulfill his major league dreams despite throwing a pitch nobody wanted.
In that sense it’s wonderful to see the camaraderie between the knuckleball players — Dickey uses the word “fraternity” to describe their kinship, and it’s hard to see it otherwise. The film’s moments that involve a roundtable of sorts between Wakefield, Dickey, and retired knuckleball pitchers Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, and Jim Bouton discussing the zen behind being a knuckleball pitcher are some of the film’s best.
Perhaps the only weak point of Knuckleball! is that for its brief 90 minute runtime there are an awful lot of almost music video-like interludes showing the knuckleball pitchers throwing. While that is necessary to show the mechanics and dominance of the pitch, one of these sequences would be sufficient. These men are so fascinating that an extra few minutes of their interviews would’ve been preferable instead. Even better, perhaps a few minutes with the handful of minor league players who are knuckleball pitchers would’ve added an interesting narrative thread.
Knuckleball! is a fitting exploration of one of baseball’s enduring mysteries. While all of sports has been saturated with analysis and statistics, it’s relieving to see that there remains something in baseball that could never be accurately qualified or quantified. It seems like nobody, not even the men who have used it professionally, knows the true secrets of the knuckleball, so don’t expect to unlock them after watching this documentary. Just enjoy learning about how the men who never quite fit in with their peers found success when they otherwise appeared hopeless. But be prepared to point to Dickey as one of your new favorite players after seeing the movie, and you’ll likely be rooting for the next knuckleball pitcher who makes the big leagues.
Rating: A brilliant documentary for any baseball fan, whether hardcore or casual (9/10).
Check back later this week for our exclusive coverage of the Knuckleball! premiere!
Tribeca Film Festival Screening Times
Friday, April 27 4:00PM AMC Loews Village 7 – 2
Saturday, April 28 4:00PM Tribeca Cinemas Theater 2