Knuckleball is more than just another documentary. It's a documentary that presents two underdog figures who have overcome some big odds to become two of baseball's most respected pitchers despite throwing what is considered one of the game's least respected pitches. Those men are R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield. The pair's rise to fame wasn't an easy one. In the case of Dickey, he was shuffled up and down through baseball's big leagues and the minors until he was ultimately given a chance by the New York Mets. On the other side, audiences are presented the story of fellow "knuckleballer" Tim Wakefield. Both men were doubted early on by their teams, managers and fans because of their pitch of choice. But through perseverance and respect for their craft, viewers see how the pair has helped to bring new respect to the pitch and to other pitchers that throw knuckleballs.
The story is told expertly by film makers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. The pair culled footage of Dickey and Wakefield from both their professional careers and their formative years as youths. The pair's professional footage comes courtesy of a partnership with Major League Baseball Productions. Their discussions with fellow "knuckleballers" Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Jim Bouton, Tom Candiotti, and Phil Niekro are something resembling members of an elite fraternity. Audiences will enjoy these moments as members of two totally separate generations share their "war stories." Dickey and Wakefield also share their own stories with the film makers. Their stories range from the humorous to the deeply emotional as they explain where they came from and the work put in to reach baseball's highest level. Combined with the accompanying video profiling each man's career, these stories are the highlights of this feature.
Some by now might be asking why they should have any interest in this documentary. Again, the answer is simple. It goes back to the documentary's early minutes, when Newsday writer David Lennon references Americans' desire for immediate gratification and higher speeds. They don't want to see slow pitches. Lennon is right. There seems to be an ever increasing push for pitchers to throw faster than the last guy. But, in watching this feature, baseball fans will see why the knuckleball-and throwing the knuckleball--should be given as much credit as the fastball, curve or slider. It proves that the knuckleball is more than just a pitch and why throwing it is an art in itself. The pitcher is throwing, with a knuckleball, a pitch that forces the batter to second guess himself, much like a racer on the starting line at a drag strip does against his competitor. It's a pitch that forces both sides to think and have full clarity of mind. A pitcher that can fake out a batter time and again with this pitch is a true pitcher. He isn't just relying on being able to throw fast and hard. He is throwing a ball that takes true thought to deliver and to hit. And while the current generation of pitchers isn't exactly chock full of "knuckleballers", viewers will see in the bonus features that there is still another generation of pitchers ready to carry on the legacy of this pitch and those who threw it before them. And who knows? Maybe one day, baseball fans will see another documentary on this fabled not-so-fast-ball. And with that next documentary, it will be spoken of in far more respected terms.
Filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern made heavy use of game footage from the 2011 season. The film is much stronger when it tells Wakefield and Dickey's respective life stories, charting careers filled with ups and downs, in which the knuckleball saved them from obscurity, then and at times desert them. Dickey's opening-day start in 2011 went awry because he broke a fingernail; Wakefield looked to be washed up after a few good years in Pittsburgh, because he lost confidence in his main pitch. And both men had tough 2011s, with Dickey battling injuries and Wakefield losing six consecutive starts and briefly being relegated to the bullpen out before getting his 200th win.
What I like the most, however, was the larger context of the world of the knuckleball pitcher. The filmmakers do a great job of painting these guys are part of an exclusive club. There aren't a lot of knuckleballers, so they have to stick together. This camaraderie makes for some interesting scenes, particularly when Dickey and Wakefield hang out with retired knuckleball pitchers Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, Wilbur Wood, Jim Bouton, and Tom Candiotti.
The movie is good for an inside look at the game, particularly these two men and how the pitch defines them. It's a must for baseball fans. The history is fascinating, the subjects are likable, and there's some genuine emotion in its concluding sections. Mostly enjoyable, you don't have to be a baseball fan to like this movie.