Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 19 September 2012
Source Digital projection
I should probably tell you that I’m from Massachusetts, and that as such the Red Sox are more or less my birthright. While I’m at it, I should also note that longtime Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield was my favorite on the team for many years. But I’m actually not sure how biased any of that makes my review of Knuckleball!, a new documentary that spotlights Wakefield as well as current Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey. If I came into the film with particularly high hopes, I also brought with me a considerable risk of disappointment, and while I may have been content with a lighthearted exploration of an oddball pitching technique, Knuckleball! delivers a good deal more.
Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg follow Wakefield and Dickey throughout the 2011 major league baseball season, a point in time that finds both pitchers at turning points in their careers. Wakefield, who is forty-four years old at the start of the season, knows that his career may be coming to a close, and he’s at once battling for his spot in the rotation and chasing after numbers that could shore up his legacy, including his 200th career win. Dickey, meanwhile, is coming off of a surprise breakout year with the Mets in 2010, and feels pressured to repeat his previous success. Perhaps unsurprisingly - given the erratic nature of their signature pitch - both men meet with powerful frustrations in addition to some stirring successes.
Indeed, Knuckleball!, like many of the best sports movies, contemplates losing as much as it celebrates winning. For example, one of Wakefield’s toughest career lows - giving up a winning run to the Yankees’ Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS - gets significant screen time, including heart-tugging footage of Wakefield sitting in the locker room after the game, head bowed. Stern and Sundberg also employ the voices of sports radio callers like a Greek chorus, illustrating the staggering pressure that these players face every time they step on the field.
What the film does with particularly remarkable effectiveness is to remind us that even earning the opportunity to step on the field at all is a victory. Even summoning the courage and drive to compete - for a place on the team, for a possible place in history - is admirable. The knuckleball is characterized as a kind of last chance: sports columnist David Lennon calls it a pitch “borne of desperation,” and Wakefield, a former first baseman, did in fact turn to the pitch as his last chance to make it to the show. So did Dickey, whose career was seriously in doubt after a team physical for the Texas Rangers revealed a congenital anomaly in his pitching arm. It’s clear that the film’s knuckleballers possess extraordinary persistence - Dickey continued on even after being sent to the minors at age thirty-five - and the film refreshingly depicts their determination, and the many bumps in their careers, rather than basking in highlight reels.
Knuckleball! is a thoroughly absorbing film that has been assembled with understatement and grace. Stern and Sundberg may reach for universality, but, crucially, they don’t overdo anything. They don’t force-feed us excessive comparisons between baseball and life. We aren’t told how much these knuckleballers, struggling just to stay in the game, never sure when they’ll hit a rough patch, ought to remind us of our own imperfect selves. We’re trusted to know.