“I don’t even think he knows where it’s going.” Derek Jeter
The knuckleball is tricky. Jeter’s description of R.A. Dickey’s delivery that consistently tripped him up just as aptly describes the tumultuous career of any true knuckleballer. Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s documentary Knuckleball! follows Dickey and Tim Wakefield through the 2011 MLB season, chronicling the lives of the then two remaining pro knucklers.
Careers of Knuckleball Pitchers Dickey, Wakefield, Hough and Niekro Prove as Unpredictable as the Pitch
The careers of the small fraternity who relied on the unconventional signature pitch resemble the slow, bumbling path of the pitch itself. Charlie Hough and HOF’er Phil Niekro among others join Wakefield and Dickey at special moments in the film to discuss what it means to live by the knuckleball. Niekro’s 21W-20L season with the Atlanta Braves is a perfect metaphor for the split-personality pitch.
No pitcher begins an MLB career hoping to gain celebrity for what’s been referred to as a “circus pitch.” It’s slow, rarely climbing above 70 mph, with minimal spin. When it works, it confuses hitters and trips up umpires. Even catchers are thrown off, making it all the more special.
Tim Wakefield was a 17-year veteran with the Red Sox and R.A. Dickey was finding his way during that 2011 season. Both detail their expectations of more conventional path at the onset of their careers, but fate intervened. Without turning to that pitch, who’s to say that both players would be the fan favorites they turned out to be.
Baseball purists will dig this documentary because it taps all the bases, pardon the pun. Leading off with innocent childhood photos with the kid bats, circling through the highs and lows, all the way to Wakefield’s emotional retirement ceremony. Hough and Niekro are prominent in the film, offering advice and perspective on the life of a knuckleball pitcher.
I Broke a Nail! And Other Great Film Moments
The pitch itself relies on the fingernail and not necessarily the knuckle. Yes – the release, controlling the speed and the ball’s deceptive path are all contingent upon the slight touch of the nail. Once, when R.A. Dickey broke his, all hell broke loose causing the pitch to lose its effectiveness. Again, the film succeeds in pulling you in to the story.
The cinematography gives you goosebumps. Up close shots of freshly cut grass, aerial views of the mound, pans of the fans in the stands and the in-game shots are enough alone to keep you hyped. But those aren’t the most memorable scenes.
Conversations with Wakefield alone in his hotel room feel like theater monologues. Dickey’s in-car discussion of the loss of his first contract even before he signed following an exciting college career breaks your heart. Before you know it, you’re invested and pulling for Wakefield to win that special game. The results are in the history books, but it doesn’t matter because it feels like it’s happening all over again. Like batters facing these guys, you step up, you know it’s coming and you’re still unprepared to feel the story that deeply when it hits you.
R.A. Dickey Later Becomes 1st Knuckleballer to Win Cy Young Award
When Tim Wakefield retired from baseball as a Boston Red Sox at the Green Monster, he mentioned leaving behind R.A. Dickey and Charlie Haeger as the lone knuckleball pitchers to carry the torch. Really it was just Dickey, who has settled onto the Toronto Blue Jays roster after his major success with the New York Mets.
Boston must be missing Wakefield as just yesterday, new knuckler Steven Wright took the mound and got the win against Baltimore. The 30 year-old Wright, the newest member of the fraternity, is at the perfect age. Perhaps he’s setting us up for Knuckleball II!
Stream the film today on Netflix.