Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg’s new documentary Knuckleball, which opens next week at the IFC Center, focuses ostensibly on the 2011 campaigns of the Boston Red Sox’s Tim Wakefield and the New York Mets’ R.A. Dickey. However it also deals with the fraternity of living knuckleballers - a group that includes Jim Bouton, Charlie Hough and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro – and their relationship to one another as well as to the mercurial pitch that landed them in this exclusive club.
“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball” writes Jim Bouton at the end of his seminal baseball chronicle Ball Four, “and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” With the exception of Niekro, who was signed as a knuckleballer, everyone else comes to the pitch out of desperation; a way to salvage what is left of a lifelong dream. Wakefield, whose quest for that elusive 200th career victory supplies the film with it’s emotional climax, was a slugging first baseman who couldn’t slug. Dickey’s story is probably familiar to most Met fans; from being drafted in the first round, to having his bonus slashed form $825,000 to $75,000 because he lacked a ulnar collateral nerve, to his years in the wilderness as a journeyman, to ascendance as a knuckler. What many may not know is that he had the chance to take a one million dollar insurance claim on his arm – with the caveat that he would have to find something else to do with his life. The film drives two points home: the loneliness in the pursuit of mastering an infamously unpredictable pitch, and the sense of alienation each man experiences as a result of that pursuit. The terms "circus pitch”, “alien”, and “spooky” are used to both describe pitch and pitcher, and it is little wonder that the men who tilt at this particular windmill seek out others who have done the same.
The film leans heavily on talking head interviews and eschews the history of the pitch (who ever came up with this? And when?) in favor of following Wakefield’s quest not only for a personal milestone, but also the Red Sox career record for wins; as well as Dickey’s quest to find his footing in the big leagues after a decade and a half of hardship. When the four pitchers get together to share stories and technique, there is a certain Jedi Knight vibe to them; as if they are the last guard of an ancient order (the film’s tagline – “To gain power, you must first give up control” even sounds like a directive out of the mouth of Yoda). Now that I think about it, the Order of the Sith applies more to Wakefield and Dickey. As Samuel L. Jackson tells us at the end of Star Wars Episode I, there are always two – a master and an apprentice. With Wakefield’s retirement, it is Dickey who is now the lone master of the knuckleball in Major League Baseball. Who will be his apprentice in the coming years? Whoever it is, they will take up the quest to come to terms with a pitch that, like the path to the majors, requires persistence, faith – and a certain acceptance that one it is out of your hands, the ball is going to go where it is going to go.
Peter Duffy is a contributing writer for RealDirtyMets.com