Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary Knuckleball introduces us to the tiny fraternity of major league baseball players who have made a career out of throwing the sport’s most confounding pitch. Unlike the guys who can throw blazing fastballs or curve balls that seem to drop off a table, knuckleball pitchers seem to defy all of the metrics–especially pitch speed–that we use to evaluate major legue talent. In fact, throwing a knuckleball, which involves releasing a pitch so that it has absolutely no spin, requires an astounding level of trust in factors that these pitchers cannot control, especially the wind currents that carry the slowly floating pitch in utterly unpredictable directions, leaving many of the pitchers to talk about their skills in terms that seem to have a Zen-like embrace of “letting go” of the pitch as it enters the world. This discussion of how the pitch works is fascinating by itself, but what fascinated me the most was how Stern and Sundberg were able to provide such a rich understanding of this tiny group of men, linked together across history and even across rivalries, because of a pitching talent that defies almost everything conventionally associated with major league pitching.
Knuckleball is structured around the 2011 seasons of two knuckleballers, Tim Wakefield, who was reaching the end of his long career, and R.A. Dickey, a former hard-throwing phenom who was reviving his career after discovering the knuckler during his 30s. Both men, along with Jim Bouton, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Wilber Wood, discuss the mechanics of throwing the pitch, but what comes across throughout the film is the uncertainty that both men face. Instead of the typical locker room jocularity, both Wakefield and Dickey are presented as contemplative family men, reflective about their unique status in baseball and the difficulty of playing a sport where their talents are often misunderstood and mistrusted. Wakefield acknowledges that even the most trusting managers and pitching coaches are quicker to give up on a knuckleballer after a few bad starts, but he is hanging on, hopefully just long enough to earn his 200th major league win.
Dickey’s story serves as a reminder that the knuckleball is often seen as a pitch of last resort–the pitch that minor leaguers will pick up when their talents have failed them and there seem to be no remaining options. In Dickey’s case, a deformity in his pitching arm scared off scouts who’d previously offered him a six-figure bonus after he led his University of Tennessee baseball team to the College World Series. Wakefield has a similar story. When he started his career, he’d been projected as a power-hitting first baseman but found that he couldn’t adjust to professional pitchers and, almost by chance, had a pitching coach notice his ability to throw a knuckler. Just a couple of years later, he was in the major leagues with the Pirates, nearly leading the team to the World Series. But like the floating, darting pitch, within two years, Wakefield was on a different path, released by the Pirates and picked up as a gamble by the Red Sox, where he would play for nearly to decades. Even Hall of Famer Phil Niekro suggests that he picked up the pitch only because he could never have thrown a big league fastball.
Because of this outsider status–a pitch based upon unpredictability and less dependent on traditional metrics–Dickey and Wakefield seem most comfortable with their small fraternity of knuckleballers, and Stern and Sundberg capture some fascinating and fun moments when most of the living knuckleballers get together and talk about their experiences. In other scenes, Dickey is shown seeking counsel from Wilbur Wood while visiting Los Angeles rather than discussing the pitch with his pitching coach. In addition, the film spends quite a bit of time looking at Dickey and Wakefield’s lives outside of baseball–their interactions with their wives and children, even on the road–reminding us that their successes depend in part on the families that supported and encouraged them–even when that meant living on $800 a month and moving dozens of times to minor league teams all over the U.S. If the knuckleballer is a solitary figure in the locker room, he is also a family man, older than most of his teammates.
The film culminates with Wakefield paying tribute to the others in his small fraternity, one that forever seems to be on the verge of extinction, given the small number of players that throw it. At the same time, Dickey’s success–he has blossomed into an ace pitcher since the film was produced–holds out promise that this small Zen-like fraternity will endure as yet another player seeks out another backdoor path into the major leagues.