‘You need the fingertips of a safecracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist.” That’s New Yorker magazine sportswriter Roger Angell on the qualifications necessary to become a great knuckleballer, and the sweet achievement of “Knuckleball!,” Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s documentary about this quixotic pitch and the quixotic men who throw it, is that it gives both sides equal play.
The movie’s a must for baseball fans in general and Red Sox fans in particular — if nothing else, it will help remove the battery-acid taste of the season now stumbling to a close. “Knuckleball!” focuses on the 2011 season (the first three-quarters, mercifully) and the only two pitchers then in the majors who specialized in the curious art: Tim Wakefield of the Sox and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets. One was on his way out after 17 years in Boston, while the other was seeing his career unexpectedly catching fire. Stretching out behind them stood a small line of past knuckleballers such as Jim Bouton, Phil and Joe Niekro, and Charlie Hough — the proud, the few, the ornery.
In baseball, the knuckleball is the pitch least trusted by managers, coaches, catchers, hitters — even by the men who throw it. Released at slow speeds (50 to around 80 mph) without any spin, it’s subject to flukes of wind and other variables. It represents a pitcher giving himself up to the universe; it invites philosophy by default. When it works, a batter can’t hit it. When it doesn’t, he can knock it out of the park.
Because so few professional players have made it their specialty, it’s a pitch that gets no respect: We hear the knuckleball called a trick, a freak, a “circus pitch.” The pitchers who rely on it have usually resorted to it in desperation — Wakefield early on struggled as an infielder in the minors and Dickey only perfected the knuckleball late in his career — but it’s the sort of gift that improves with a player’s age. When the film opens, Wakefield is the oldest player in the majors at 44 and has never seemed more in command.
The film focuses on the pitcher’s 2011 pursuit of his 200th career win (which didn’t come easily) and on Dickey’s prove-it-or-lose-it second year as a Met (thus missing his miraculous performance in the 2012 season). The back half sweats particularly hard to work up suspense, padding the running time with play-by-plays and slow-motion tosses; the directors have a slightly harder job bringing life to this subject than they did with their last documentary, 2010’s “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”
But they do, and the best scenes in “Knuckleball!” paradoxically take place off the field. Baseball players may not be the most charismatic of men when they’re not doing what they’re paid to do, but they are genuine, and both Wakefield and Dickey come across as honorable, articulate individuals, thankful for their successes and respectful of the mystery. We hear from a lot of people: sportswriters, broadcasters, managers, fans, the opponents who have to try to hit the darned thing and the catchers who have to try to catch it.
But the filmmakers know that it’s the small fraternity of knuckleballers who are most worthy of attention, and it does a viewer’s heart good to see Dickey and Wakefield sitting down in a living room with Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough, trading tips and war stories. Only these men, and very few others, know what they know.
There’s a lot of local color in “Knuckleball!” Fenway, of course, and talking heads that include Terry (sigh) Francona, Jason Varitek, and Doug Mirabelli (who points to his head and says “All these gray hairs are Wakey’s”). The yawp of Boston sports radio callers is heard more than once, urging Wakefield to “reti-ah,” but the movie properly considers this the buzzing of flies.
It’s what happens on the mound and everything that has led up to it that matters. Stern and Sundberg show us enough old footage of their subjects — stretching back to Little League games — to remind a viewer of how absurdly chancy, how like a knuckleball pitch itself, a baseball player’s career is. To its great credit, “Knuckleball!” concerns itself with the long game, and it finds an unexpected poetry in motion.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.