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Tribeca Film Festival Review: Knuckleball!

photo by Charles Miller

A fraternity based on an unpredictable pitch

The knuckleball pitch has been present in Major League Baseball since 1907, and yet it’s been championed by only an historic handful. Now over a century old, the spin-less baseball’s legacy rests in the fate of one current pitcher, New York Mets hurler R.A. Dickey, the last remaining major league player to contain it in his arsenal. 

This is one of the storylines that floats and drops and teases in Knuckleball!, a documentary about the historically baffling pitch that a only a select few have mastered on the mound. Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) team up again for this, at times historical, at times emotional, story that examines an often unnoticed pitch, unless of course you’re in the batter’s box.

Our main subjects of focus are former Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield and the abovementioned R.A. Dickey, chronicling them during the 2011 season. This year carries some special importance because Wakefield is closing in on 200 career wins, and an eventual retirement, while Dickey starts his first year with New York, a two-year contract that has for the first time in his life presented him some residential stability. We cut between both their stories month by month, pitch by pitch, and come to realize their extreme minority complex within a world of radar gun fastballs and speed happy scouts.

Swerving between these narratives are archival tidbits, memories, and anecdotes about throwing and facing the legendary “frozen” baseball. Leading the talking head campaign of the film are former knucklers Jim Bouton, Charlie Hough, and Phil Niekro, now all old and gray but still with sharp visions of years past, the highs and lows of the most unpredictable pitch in the game. It dives, ducks, tails, and has been alternately described as a “Wiffleball in a wind tunnel.” Contrast the throwers with the hitters, and they’re even less prepared for it, as witnessed by the numerous silly swings montaged together.

In a gathered setting the knucklers circle bonfire style and recount situations and hitters. Dickey says with the game on the line he’d rather face the leviathan sluggers than the pesky “slappers” and hope they swing out of their shoes. Maybe tougher is a catcher’s job. Josh Thole of the Mets and the Red Sox’s Doug Mirabelli recall their war wounds and chest protector skid marks, trying to pop the glove at the right time. “How do you catch a knuckleball?” Bob Eucker was once questioned. “Wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up."

Unlike most athletes, Wakefield and Dickey only have a few references to turn to for improving their game. Dickey jokes that his pitching coach will come to the mound to talk to him and not have a clue what to say except for him to “throw that good one.” It’s a pitch where turning to mentors is the only way to get better, but they have to be the right ones. In one, somewhat contrived, scene, Dickey reviews some film with Hough in a private workout facility. The take-away is that Dickey is just only beginning to enter his golden age of knuckle-balling at 37. Far less taxing on the arm, the pitch let Hough retire at 46 and Niekro at 48. Only a knuckleballer could do that, unless of course you’re Jamie Moyer.

Scheduled to make $4.5 million from the Mets this year, Dickey began his career as a hardballer from the University of Tennessee. He got drafted #18 by the Texas Rangers with a signing bonus of $810,000, but an obscurity in Dickey’s arm forced the Rangers to re-evaluate. Dickey was missing his ulnar collateral ligament, and the Rangers squeamishly re-bargained for $75,000. He accepted, and what followed was a series of team changes and transitions, all the while trying to perfect the knuckleball. Wakefield had better success, but he first had to realize he wasn’t going to join his first team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, as a slugging first baseman. After some rough patches, the Red Sox took a flier on him, and it paid off.

To say the career of a knuckleballer is fragile though would be an understatement. The outcome of every pitch is completely unpredictable when it leaves the fingertips. "It's going to do what it feels like doing and you don't know what that's going to be," says Wakefield. Yankee fans know that best, especially when you mention Aaron Boone in a sentence. Dickey’s troubles however lie in his fingernails. A chipped nail may as well be a torn ACL for him, because the pitch isn’t thrown with his knuckles, but with his finely manicured carotene.

The film is special mainly because it is an art largely unknown, and untold until now. There is a method to the madness, and like unearthing Joan River’s philosophy of comedy, Wakefield and Dickey uncover the oftentimes-alienating facets of throwing the pitch. That’s why both pitchers keep referring to their select group of knucklers as a fraternity, a closed group of people who realize the capricious nature of a baseball once it heads for home plate.  

Wakefield’s concluding retirement speech puts the onus and future of the pitch in Dickey’s fingernails. After witnessing the tumultuous, incalculable job of a starting knuckleball pitcher, this must feel burdensome. Then again, it’s a knuckleball. You never know what could happen.