Film Review: Knuckleball!

An uplifting documentary about perseverance and determination reminds us that the national pastime still offers old-school heroes.

As its exclamatory title shouts, Knuckleball! takes an enthusiast’s approach to its subject, the art of throwing the eponymous pitch that remains one of the great curiosities in all of sports. Only a handful of players have mastered this rare skill, and most of them, like Jim Bouton, have been celebrated eccentrics, the kind of players that make baseball a colorful game. Yet the stars of this documentary—recently retired Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and current ace R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets—are as American as apple pie, with the added attraction that they are underdogs who, through perseverance and love of the game, succeeded against all odds. Who can’t root for them?

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, whose last documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, was a surprise hit, have impeccable timing, for Dickey is having a dream season. Shortlisted for the Cy Young Award, he has a good chance to win 20 games, his 2.67 ERA among the best in both leagues. That he has walked only 50 batters in 212 innings (as of mid-September) is remarkable for knuckleballers, notorious for their lack of control. Unfortunately, his team is next to last in the National League East, with a record only slightly better than the Red Sox, stuck in the cellar in the American League East. Knuckleball!, if nothing else, will give disappointed fans in both baseball-centric cities something to cheer about.

Those fans should note well: Knuckleball! is not inside-baseball, although the filmmakers explain basic mechanics and aerodynamics: Pitchers grip the ball with their fingernails (not their knuckles) with the aim of floating it with as little spin as possible, at speeds that wouldn’t intimidate a Little Leaguer. The effect, as one hitter puts it, is “spooky.” Each knuckleball has a life of its own, wobbling its way to the plate, dropping unpredictably at the last moment, confounding batters and catchers alike. “To the masses, it’s a circus pitch,” says Dickey.

Stern and Sundberg, however, aren’t interested in the physics of the game, splicing in perfunctory clips of managers and sportswriters explaining the obvious: “I don’t think even he knows where it’s going,” says Yankee great Derek Jeter of Wakefield. Rather, Stern and Sundberg focus on personalities. Both pitchers are likeable and unpretentious, perhaps because both struggled to find themselves after early promise. Wakefield, for example, started his career 8-1 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, only to lose his mojo and find himself released two years later. He was picked up by the Red Sox and sent down to Pawtucket to work with knuckleball icons Phil and Joe Niekro, and the rest is history: Two-hundred career wins, two World Series rings, and the everlasting gratitude of Boston fans.

Dickey, too, was a college superstar, leading the Tennessee Volunteers to the NCAA championship and earning a bronze medal with the U.S. team at the Olympics. Offered a contract by the Texas Rangers, Dickey underwent the requisite physical examinations, when specialists discovered he lacked something called an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow—a bizarre anomaly that seemed to rule out any future in the Show. Rather than collect on the million-dollar insurance policy he carried on his arm, he signed with the Rangers for a paltry $75,000, then struggled for years, bouncing from team to team when not struggling in the minors, at one point living in his car to save money. Like Wakefield, however, he found salvation in the knuckleball, a pitch he learned to throw when he was a boy but never took seriously. And like Wakefield, he found a mentor in a former master, Charlie Hough. The result: Dickey is having what is arguably the best season of any knuckleball pitcher in baseball history.

Wakefield and Dickey, who genuinely appear to appreciate the good fortune that has come of their hard work, have been generous off the field (not stressed in the documentary), yet another reason to celebrate their careers. Both men are old-fashioned, ah-shucks role models, the type of sports hero once taken for granted but hard to find today. For this reason alone, Stern and Sundberg are to be applauded for bringing their stories to an audience beyond the ballpark.