Monday, September 17, 2012

Knuckleball!: The Few, the Proud

The last two years have been tough for Mets fans, but there have been a few bright spots.  They have had the pleasure of watching Bobby Valentine “manage” another team and R. A. Dickey has posted All-Star worthy seasons on the mound.  When he signed with the Mets, he was one of two knuckleball pitchers in Major League Baseball.  And then there was one.  Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg follow Dickey as he works to make a name for himself, while his knuckleball throwing colleague Tim Wakefield chases a series of career milestones in the thoroughly entertaining documentary, Knuckleball! (trailer here), which opens this Thursday at the IFC Center.

Tim Wakefield did just about everything you can do as a member of the Boston Red Sox, an often overlooked Northeastern team best known for trading away Babe Ruth, including giving up the eleventh inning walk-off homerun in game seven of the 2003 ALCS.  Honestly, that was something of a fluke.  Wakefield always had success against the Yankees, which made the Red Sox’s decision to banish him to the bullpen rather baffling.  In a year when the Sox were largely out of contention, beating the Yanks whenever possible would have been a logical fallback goal.  Nonetheless, Wakefield saw little meaningful time on the mound at the start of the 2011 season, despite the tantalizing closeness of his 200th win.

A journeyman pitcher who stunned the baseball world, particularly including the Amazins, by winning a spot on the rotation, R.A. Dickey finally signed a guaranteed contract.  However, a nagging injury threatens to put a damper on the party.  Fortunately, Dickey can call on the knuckleball support network, especially his mentor, veteran knuckleballer Charlie Hough, for advice.

Some of Knuckleball’s best scenes capture the get-togethers of this knuckleball fraternity, including Hough, both active proponents, and Wakefield’s early guru, Phil Niekro.  As one might expect, they have some funny stories to tell.  Wakefield and Dickey do a fine job explaining what the knuckleball pitch does and does not do.  However, all knuckleballers are at a bit of a loss to explain the deep-seated disdain for their bread-and-butter pitch.  Considering how radically different it looks to batters, one would think every club would want one knuckleballer on staff, but no, not by a long shot.

Stern and Sundberg do something rather remarkable in Knuckleball by building to a big satisfying emotional crescendo, even though they are following two pitchers whose respective teams were a country mile away from the pennant chase.  It comes through loud and clear Wakefield and Dickey are not just concerned with their individual stats.  They are representing their pitch, like faithful practitioners of an esoteric martial art.  Yet, this is exactly what baseball is all about: tradition.

Dickey and Wakefield are consistently likable subjects and the old school knuckleballers, including Hough, Niekro, and Jim Bouton, are even more so.  Prolific documenterians, Stern & Sundberg’s best known work is probably Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and their most important project is easily Burma Soldier, but Knuckleball is by far their most enjoyable.  Non-sports viewers will still find it completely engaging, but for baseball fans, it is like a bag of salted peanuts at an office getaway game (that’s a good thing).  Enthusiastically recommended to general audiences, Knuckleball! (with exclamation point) opens this Thursday (9/20) in New York at the IFC Center.