Knuckleball!

The documentary Knuckleball!, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, opens this week in theaters in New York and Boston and is available on-demand and online. Information on tickets and screening times is available here.

In the film’s opening sequence, the directors use audio clips from baseball and talk-radio broadcasts to establish the way the knuckleball is stigmatized in the game: It is “a trick pitch,” “a mediocre pitcher’s best friend,” something not to be trusted. Next, one of the movie’s stars outlines what is perhaps its central theme:

“You look at the course of my career, it’s been up and down, the good with the bad, the twists and the turns,” says Tim Wakefield. “That’s what my pitch does.”

Using a combination of recent and archived game footage, on- and off-field material shot for the film, interviews and still photos, Knuckleball! follows Wakefield and R.A. Dickey — the big leagues’ only knuckleballers — through their 2011 seasons. But like its namesake pitch and the careers of its practitioners, Knuckleball! swoops and bends and breaks and wiggles in flight, veering into both pitchers’ histories and winding through the mindset the pitch requires and the supportive brotherhood of knuckleballers that help each other maintain it.

Yet through all its twists, the movie never feels disjointed. Rather, it is beautiful for its digressions, for helping the audience feel every high and low and swivel and plunge in a season or a career but still somehow keeping its course. Again, like a knuckleball itself.

One thing no documentary or game coverage can ever quite seem to capture is what a knuckleball actually looks like to a batter or to an observer standing right behind the plate. Undoubtedly if you’re a baseball fan you’ve seen video of pitches flying free of spin, but there’s something about the way they flutter and wobble up close and in person that defies the cameras. I don’t know why this is, whether it’s actual physics or an optical illusion, but occasionally a good knuckleball will even appear to dart upwards mid-flight. There must be an explanation, but to a layman it shouldn’t matter much: Whether it’s actually happening or just appears to be happening, it’s a spectacular thing to behold.

Interviews drive Knuckleball!, so Stern and Sundberg benefit from Wakefield’s workmanlike candidness and Dickey’s professorial panache. But maybe it’s no coincidence that Major League Baseball’s two knuckleballers also come off as two of its most interesting and introspective people: It must take a special type of dude, after all, to do what they do.

Think about what Tim Wakefield did for a minute. After his flare-up and fizzle-out with the Pirates, Wakefield caught on with the Red Sox in 1995. Think of the type of personality it must take to last through the entire length of one of baseball’s greatest offensive eras, pitching in one of its greatest hitters’ parks, in front of a notoriously hostile fan base — them that never quite took to Ted Williams — throwing the same 67-mph pitch over and over again. And yeah, baseball is a game and Wakefield was compensated handsomely for the work he did, no doubt. But baseball breaks people all the time, and Wakefield’s ability to remain upright through his struggles in 2011 shed light on why he was able to succeed as a knuckleballer at all.

If I’m going off on tangents myself: No one in the film comes off seeming as wise or as entertaining as the elder statesman of the knuckleballing community, Wakefield’s mentor Phil Niekro. And for all the justifiable talk about Dickey’s stellar 2012 season, Niekro’s work in the late 1970s might not get enough credit in the pantheon of knuckleball lore. From 1977 through 1979, Niekro threw over 1000 innings in three seasons and amassed 25.2 bbWAR — three more than Tim Lincecum has to date in his entire career.

The action in Knuckleball! closes before the 2012 season began, so Dickey’s current campaign, which now appears to be darting and diving its way toward a Cy Young Award, does not make the film. It is, for the sake of the metaphor, one of those knuckleballs that rocket upward in apparent defiance of documentation and logic and belief.

Dickey has said in the past that he believes the knuckleball resonates with so many fans because there’s something populist about it: Since the pitch does not, on face, require any inhuman strength, everyone thinks he can throw a knuckleball and everyone believes it is his best shot at a Major League career — even if it is in truth nearly impossible to do successfully. But I suspect there’s something else about the knuckleball that grips us, something enormously poignant and universal and something that Dickey alludes to in the film’s final moments. To throw the knuckleball is to live at the whims of the wind, to harness an enormous amount of skill to ultimately yield to randomness as everyone must almost all the time, suffering or succeeding from our slightest slip or lightest touch.

“Once it leaves your hand,” Dickey says, “it’s up to the world what it’s going to do.”

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