Knuckleball pitches are an aberration in the big leagues, where high speed and velocity are prized among pitchers. Free of spin and thrown with fingernails, the knuckleball clocks in at around 70 miles per hour compared to 90 miles-per-hour fastballs. Its path is unpredictable, confounding batters, catchers and even the pitchers who throw them. Eccentric and erratic, it’s a pitch that gains little trust in the sport, but a new documentary seeks to change that.
In Knuckleball!, which premiered last Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg trace the careers of knuckleball pitchers R.A. Dickey (New York Mets) and Tim Wakefield (Boston Red Sox) as they navigate the ups and downs of their marginalized specialty. Dickey, Wakefield and knuckleball vets like Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough tick off commonly held perceptions of the knuckleball pitch—that it only works as a fluke, that anyone can do it, that it’s more circus act than athleticism.
With a reputation like that, one can only imagine the level of perseverance required to build a career on a pitch that commands so little respect. Before Dickey landed with the Mets in 2010, he moved his family 37 times in 15 years, signing one year-long, non-guaranteed contract after another. Wakefield, who retired in February at age 45, endured his own string of embarrassments and failures in his 17-year career. Yet they both stuck with it, and if the documentary proves anything, it’s that patience is a virtue for knuckleballers—many of whom reach their prime in their late 30s and early 40s. As writer Roger Angell puts it, knuckleball pitching requires “the fingertips of a safecracker and the mind of a Buddhist.”
Knuckleball! is informative and incisive as much as it is nostalgic, inspirational and full of heart—all qualities of a terrific baseball documentary. Above all, it captures the sheer determination of two athletes who persevered and succeeded against the odds.