Rating: 2.75/5There are basically two approaches to making a film about baseball, each of them exemplified by a seminal feature from the 1980s. There’s the majestic poetry of Barry Levinson’s The Natural (1984) or the rambunctious playfulness tinged with cynicism of Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham (1988). While I’ll concede that the latter suits my own sensibility better, I completely understand that the former is almost irresistible when approaching the sport that is braided so thoroughly into our shared national mythos that dwindling popularity can’t quite prevent it from being pervasively considered “America’s Pastime.” Still, if there’s any topic within baseball that invites irreverence, it’s the cockeyed pitch the knuckleball, which makes the slight stodginess of the new documentary from Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg all the more perplexing.
At any given time, there are typically no more than two or three practitioners of the pitch in the Major Leagues. Throwing the knuckleball involves gripping the ball with the fingertips, digging nails into the leather and releasing it towards the plate in a way that minimizes any rotation on the ball as it travels the 60 and ½ feet to the batter. As opposed to other pitches, where rotation is the key to controlling their movement, a knuckleball is buffeted by air currents, bending and twisting in unexpected ways. It’s a little like a drunkard moving from one bar to the next, the destination set and expected but the route of the journey is anyone’s guess. When thrown well and effectively, it’s very hard for a hitter to discern the path of the pitch as it lolls slowly toward him. As former Major Leaguer Garry Sheffield puts in one of the film’s many interviews, “It looks spooky.”
Knuckleball! provides an overview of the pitch’s history and its raggedy place in the fabric of the game, but it mainly concentrates on the 2011 season, following the two active pitchers who rely on the knuckleball: Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets. As is acknowledged repeatedly in the documentary, the knuckleball has usually been the pitch of last resort, adopted by hurlers who haven’t been able to otherwise make it at a position that values high velocity stuff above all. The knuckleball is instead thrown fairly slowly, often at a miles per hour in the 60s, a good 30 less than the number that scouts are hoping for when they point their radar guns. The professional desperation associated with the pitch is somewhat true for both Wakefield and Dickey, but they are also both deeply prideful about their place in the exclusive fraternity of Major League knuckleballers, seeing it a valuable and underappreciated art.
Stern and Sundberg find some narrative solidity in contrasting their dual subjects’ differing places in the sport (Wakefield is nearing the end of his career and struggling to win his landmark 200th game, while Dickey is just starting to establish himself as a valuable asset to his team), but the film feels strangely hollow, unable to fully probe the strain, worry and reward of life as a professional athlete. This is especially unfortunate because Stern and Sundberg previously directed the exceptional Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work with a reasoned intimacy that drove home the rigors of the famously caustic comedienne’s chosen field, where simply surviving is a hard damn job. For some reason, that level of insight is lost as the directors switch from day-to-day to game-to-game.
What’s left is an exchange of information that’s interesting if a bit too familiar to anyone who’s given even cursory attention to a sports page. It gets more problematic when the filmmakers give in to the pomposity that stems from the game’s long history, having the voice of earlier knuckleballer Phil Niekro echo in Wakefield’s head with supposedly sage advice that sounds more like the clichés Crash Davis taught Nuke LaLoosh on one of those long road trip bus rides. As is commonly the case when Wakefield or Dickey is getting lit up by the opposing team, the problem with Knuckleball! is that the pitch is too straight.