Roughly every 10 years, some sports magazine or another runs a story about “the last knuckleballer”—be it Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey, or whoever’s next in line. But the truth is that the knuckleball was never a hugely popular pitch in major-league baseball. It’s a hard pitch to learn and a harder one to control, and it’s all but impossible for the game’s strategists to plan around. Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s documentary Knuckleball!, thankfully, doesn’t take the “dying breed” tack. The movie follows the 2011 seasons of Wakefield and Dickey—the former of whom was in his last season, while the latter was continuing a surprise rise that began in the second half of 2010—so Knuckleball! already has that sense of continuity, showing how this strange little fluttering pitch persevered from generation to generation.
Knuckleball! could stand a little more specificity, though. Stern and Sundberg get a little overdramatic and over-romantic about the subject, especially in the early going. Their soundtrack is sweeping (and overbearing), and their talking heads tend to make grandiose statements about baseball and American society, and how the knuckleball doesn’t fit well with either. The film is much stronger when it tells Wakefield and Dickey’s respective life stories, charting careers filled with ups and downs, in which the knuckleball saved them from obscurity, then flukily failed them. Dickey’s opening-day start in 2011, for example, went awry because he broke a fingernail; Wakefield looked to be washed up after a few good years in Pittsburgh, because he lost confidence in his main pitch. And both men had tough 2011s, with Dickey battling injuries and Wakefield stalling out while trying to notch his 200th win. There’s plenty of real drama in this movie without Stern and Sundberg having to pump it up.
Some of Knuckleball!’s best scenes show Dickey and Wakefield hanging out with Hough and Phil Niekro (the latter the rare knuckleballer who threw the pitch his whole career rather than turning to it out of desperation), talking about the mechanics and the mojo of the knuckler. Dickey in particular is a thoughtful, sweet-natured guy who understands that the knuckleball tends to improve with age, and thus requires some patience on the part of the players and their organizations. But then, the whole knuckleballing fraternity seems to have that kind of philosophical bent, because they know—as one reporter puts it while talking about Dickey’s fingernail—that “something so small can have a huge impact.”