Monday, June 6, 2016


(Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg, USA, 2012)

An enjoyable entry in what might be called the docu-curio subgenre.  Stern and Sundberg play things strictly by the book, delivering two parallel stories involving the remaining practitioners of the titular pitch, which if correctly thrown is nearly impossible to hit.  We get the requisite details and explainers: a knuckleball is thrown with the fingernails, in order to neutralize the spin that is the decisive component of virtually ever other kind of pitch, from a slider to a fastball.  Without any gyroscopic spin to guide the trajectory of the pitch, the ball is subject to whatever eddies or currents of air might exist between the mound and the catcher's glove, thus rendering it completely unpredictable, to pitcher, batter, and catcher alike.

When it works, the pitch works spectacularly well, but it can easily go wrong, leading to chronic walks or barrages of easy hits.  Thus the knuckleballer is an odd duck, unreliable and seldom utilized, a case which has only been aggravated by the contemporary game's emphasis on the supposed reliability of statistics as a guiding principle.  The directors parlay this into a tale of individual pluck and stoicism, following the two remaining pro-ball knuckleballers, R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield, as they experience professional and personal triumphs and reversals.  It's the kind of human interest story that is impossible not to find at least somewhat captivating, even if it follows along a very familiar path.  It doesn't hurt that Dickey and Wakefield both appear to be exceedingly decent and determined individuals, ambitious and humble in equal measure, conforming with striking fidelity to certain mythic American archetypes.

Besides its mythical role as "the National Sport," baseball has long been a curious attraction for folk philosophers, a relationship fruitfully explored in Chad Harbach's 2011 novel The Art of Fielding.  While I won't run through the nature of these affinities, it can be said that some nexus of cultural and metaphysical poetics exists in the sport, a game as potentially beautiful as soccer, if fundamentally different.  The directors of Knuckleball! don't really stray into these more remote expanses of the philosophical outfield, but they are aware of the heady frisson that seems to surround the sport, force field-like.  What they do explore is the role of tradition in baseball, which despite the modern innovations of a numbers-based approach, with every last attribute of play subject to statistical analysis and comparison, is still living.  Wakefield by the end of the film has retired, leaving Dickey as the sole torch-bearer, casting the future of this somewhat mad pitch into question.  Thus Dickey is possibly at the end of a long tradition of athletes, oddballs all, who have parlayed their relative lack of excellence as traditionally defined into a distinction.  The stories are strikingly similar: in nearly every case, a desire to play professional baseball at any cost led them to experiment with this iconoclastic and fickle technique.

As a celebration of the outsider, and a chronicle of determination in pursuit of an ideal, Knuckleball! is a delight, emotionally satisfying if not formally or philosophically ambitious. 

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