The last time I tried watching a baseball documentary it was a total mess. Despite that, I went was really looking forward to today’s movie, Knuckleball! For once, at least, my anticipation was well placed, because this was an excellent documentary.
Knuckleballers are the strangest of occurrences in modern sports. Generally, as the film reminds us, modern sports are about being bigger, stronger, harder, and faster. By contrast, throwing a knuckleball is about holding back, and letting the elements, via the pitch’s odd physics, wreak havoc on hitters, as well as the catchers and managers’ nerves. The film focuses on the two knuckleball pitchers active in Major League Baseball during the 2011 season, Tim Wakefield and R. A. Dickey. Like a knuckleball the film weaves back and forth between chronicling its subjects’ current season, and exploring their back-stories, (nobody starts out as a knuckleballer,) and the select fraternity amongst current and former Major League knuckleball pitchers.
I was a little disappointed that the film didn’t devote more time to the physics of the knuckleball, but this was only a minor quibble based entirely upon my assumptions going in to the movie. As it turns out the film isn’t so much about the pitch as it is about the men who throw it. And this is where it excels. Wakefield is presented as the grizzled veteran, the oldest active player in the game, in pursuit of his milestone 200th win. Conversely, Dickey is presented as the next generation carrying on the knuckler legacy. While at age 35 he would be considered on the downside of a typical Major League pitching career, he is just coming into his own as a knuckleballer, after a tumultuous career barely scraping by, and bouncing between the majors and the minors. We also meet retired knuckleballers including Phil Niekro, and Charlie Hough, (both of whom pitched well into their forties).
This really was one of the best sports documentaries that I’ve seen. Directors Ricki Stern, and Anne Sundberg do a fantastic job or keeping a cohesive narrative intact, while moving at a brisk pace and covering a enough different aspects of their subject to keep the film interesting from start to finish. As a baseball fan, I’m always up for exploring different facets of the game. (Especially when they feature one of the legends from my beloved Braves.) One of the sport’s great strengths is its utter simplicity coexisting with its universe of subtle nuance. Knuckleball! is a first-rate exploration of some of those nuances. I do believe that it would be appealing to non-fans as well. For me, though, it’s a must see.