Tribeca Review: Knuckleball


[From April 19th to the 29th, Flixist will bring you live coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Keep an eye out for news, features, interviews, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]

I feel like I’m not necessarily the best judge of Knuckleball! because I don’t watch baseball. I’ve been to a few games and had good times, but just don’t care for it on television. I do like sports documentaries regardless the sport, however, which is what drew me to the film. I like stories about oddballs and goofs, the idea of supposed fluke stars looking for some respect through hard work, improbable successes and chance occurrence; I love heroes who are palookas and ham-and-eggers and coulda-beens that find a way.

All of that is bundled up into what a knuckleball is, essentially: a ball without spin, slow but unpredictable. At one point the art of knuckleballing is described with real sportswriting panache: a knuckleball pitcher needs to have the fingers of a safe cracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist. It’s during those moments of unique insight that Knuckleball! was the most alive for me, the non-baseball fan.

Directors: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

The film follows the careers of Tim Wakefiled and R.A. Dickey. Last season, they were the only two knuckleball pitchers in the league. Wakefield has since retired, making Dickey the last in a rare breed of pitchers. The thing about the knuckleball, though, is that it’s a pitch of last resort. If you don’t have a good fastball or slider on you, you wind up going all-or-nothing on the knuckleball. That’s how both Wakefield and Dickey arrived at the pitch — nothing else was really working, but suddenly the knuckleball opened up lots of opportunity.

Both Wakefield and Dickey make for pretty compelling subjects. Their path of failure toward success via the knuckleball is the stuff of human interest sports stories, and the fact the knuckleball is considered a trick pitch unworthy of respect has a lot of pull to it. It’s a pitch with his chin out and defiant. The film tries to make a bit of an argument that the knuckleball is not respected as it ought to be because contemporary culture is obsessed with velocity. The fastest pitch recorded in MLB history: 105 mph. The average speed of a knuckleball: 65-70 mph. It’s a pitch that wouldn’t even get ticketed.

With the Wakefield material in the film, we follow his final season with the Red Sox as he chases 200 career wins. Since knuckleballers are generally role players on teams, reaching the milestone can be tricky. For Dickey’s story, we follow his course through the majors and the minors, struggling to make it, eventually discovering his knack for the knuckleball after many years of middling performance. It’s the great ballad of the comeback kids.

Seeing these two stories play out was inspiring, though I couldn’t help but feel a certain repetition to the nature of triumph and struggle, triumph and struggle, a parabolic wobble of fortune that is more predictable than the actual knuckleball. It’s a tad repetitive, though never completely boring. It’s the sort of thing I may not have minded if I saw the documentary on television rather than on the big screen. Maybe the familiar path to the knuckleball is a counterpoint to its erratic nature.

And that said, the pitch itself is something of character, and maybe the idea of the pitch was the thing that held my interest a lot of the time. While it’s easier on the shoulder to throw knuckleballs, small problems with the fingers or the fingernails can mean the end of the night for a knuckleballer, and also being taken out of the rotation until the issue is resolved. The knuckleball is all about little things — attitude, angles, fine adjustments, intricate and delicate manuvers. All that makes it hard to hit.

So maybe the knuckleball isn’t just a character but also a partial-MacGuffin — the movie is about the knuckleball, but it’s also about how people magnify the best part of themselves through tiny, unexpected methods. It’s the Sherwood Anderson idea (maybe from his memoirs, maybe from Winesburg, Ohio, I can’t remember off the top of my head) about the joys of finding your true vocation. The the writing just flowed from his fingers, the ball left their fingers without any spin — they all answered their callings.

There’s a fascinating brotherhood of knuckleballers, which makes sense since it’s a pitch that struggles for esteem. Old-timers mentor the up and comers, and you get a sense that eventually, years from now, Wakefield and Dickey may be helping the next knuckleballer to come along. They’re a rare breed; they need to stick together. Again, it’s the idea of the knuckleball and its elevation into something spiritual and existential that’s so fascinating — a trick pitch, maybe; but for some it is a way of being.

Baseball fans will probably enjoy Knuckleball! a lot more than non-baseball fans, but there’s still a lot there to grab on to. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg have put together an entertaining look at the fraternity of the knuckle and what it means to commit to something, anything, no matter how small. While I found bits of it uneven, it just goes with the nature of the pitch.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.