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“Knuckleball!”: The “Moneyball” of Documentaries

April 22, 2012

You don’t need to love baseball to love Knuckleball!, the hugely entertaining new documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight. You just need to love a good underdog story—or more than one, in this case. Like Moneyball, the movie it most closely resembles, Knuckleball! makes you stand up and cheer for some of the Great American Pastime’s most ridiculed players. Also like Moneyball, it deserves serious Oscar consideration—only this time, in the Best Documentary Feature category.

Knuckbleball! focuses on the mysterious practitioners of an all-but-exintct off-speed pitch that’s described in the film as requiring “the fingernails of a safecracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist.” The film interweaves vintage footage and new interviews with classic knuckleballers like Jim Bouton, Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough with thrilling accounts of the 2011 seasons of the last two remaining Major Leaguers who still throw the pitch: the Boston Red Sox veteran Tim Wakefield—then MLB’s oldest player at 44 and gunning for 200 career victories—and the New York Mets’ R.A. Dickey, who finally made it big in the Show in 2010 after years of false starts, missteps and minor-league obscurity.

Gorgeously directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), Knuckleball! uses Major League Baseball’s impeccably shot official game footage in creative ways; there’s a sequence that shows Wakefield giving up Aaron Boone’s crushing 2003 ALCS Game 7 home run—in reverse—that’s a heartbreaker, even if you’re a Yankee fan. And the film is full of wisdom, like Wakefield recounting how Phil and brother Joe Niekro (who were then coaching the professional women’s baseball team the Silver Bullets) turned around his career after he’d flamed out as both an infielder and a pitcher for the Pirates with advice like “Learn how to accept losses without being defeated.”

That’s serious Yoda stuff, and you can see its appeal to Dickey, who recounts in his extraordinary new memoir Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball how he escaped a childhood with an alcoholic mother, absentee father, and abusive babysitters by retreating into Luke Skywalker fantasies. These knuckleballers are baseball’s real Jedi Knights, and the scenes of Dickey, Wakefield, Niekro and Hough sitting around telling stories of batters they’ve feared and fanned play like Council meetings of the game’s wisest elders.

The beauty of the knuckleball is that you never know where it’s going; that’s why it’s so bedeviling to hitters and catchers alike. That’s the beauty of Knuckleball! too. Even if you know how Wakefield’s and Dickey’s 2011 seasons turned out, the film is constantly surprising in its wit, pathos and visual style. Metaphorically speaking, it’s a knuckleballer’s worst nightmare: a towering home run.

Who’s your favorite knuckleballer of all time? Any Wilbur Wood fans out there?

My 15-year-old son, Jed, had the honor of meeting R.A. Dickey before the screening

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