Review by Greg Haymes
It’s wildly unpredictable. The Freak Pitch. The Circus Pitch. The Trick Pitch.
And at various times during the film, it’s also described as “oddball,” “weird,” “spooky,” “fluke,” “uncontrollable.”
In the midst of all of the college basketball mayhem last weekend (and really, now that it’s April, shouldn’t March Madness be over and done with?), we sat down to celebrate the start of yet another baseball season by watching “Knuckleball!,” a fairly fascinating documentary by Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg (“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”).
The knuckleball is a rarity these days, and knuckleballers are a virtually extinct breed of pitchers. The film focuses squarely on the 2011 season of the Boston Red Sox’s Tim Wakefield and the New York Mets’ R.A. Dickey, who are perhaps the last of a dying breed of zen hurlers who are true mavericks, true risk-takers.
It’s a pitch that’s gripped with the fingernails (not the knuckles), and working in the 180-degree opposite way of every other pitch thrown, it’s not about speed, power and the amount of spin that you can put on the ball. Rather, it’s about throwing a baseball that doesn’t spin at all. A pitch that dances unpredictably on its way to the plate. Or as someone declares in the movie, “It’s a pitch with a mind of its own.”
Dangerous? Oh yeah, the knuckleball has always been a gamble every time it heads for home plate… “You just don’t know what you’re going to get. You just don’t…”
“Knuckleball!” gives you some background on the knuckleball – primarily from former big league knuckleballers Charlie Hough and Phil Neikro – but it’s more concerned with tracing the good fortunes and the terrible misfortunes of Wakefield and Dickey, neither of whom started out to be a knuckleballer. And their stories are indeed compelling.
Even after watching the film, it’s difficult to say whether it’s the oddball athlete who is attracted to the knuckleball, or whether it’s the act of pitching and attempting to perfect the knuckleball that transforms a ballplayer into a major league maverick. The film makes arguments on both sides of that issue.
But the truth is that Wakefield retired in early 2012, and that’s where the film ends. Meanwhile, Dickey was a bona fide pitching sensation last year, as the last remaining contemporary major league knuckleballer pitched two consecutive one-hitters and ran a streak of 44 & 1/3 innings without an earned run for the Mets in 2012, ultimately winning the Cy Young Award, the first time a knuckleballer has been so honored.
Having been traded from the Mets late last year, Dickey is scheduled to make his 2013 debut on the mound with the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday’s (April 2) opening day game against the Cleveland Indians.