Baseballs That Don't Spin
“I feel very blessed to be here, and that I’m here for a reason. I’m hopeful that I’m really going to be able to have the vision and wisdom to really be in the moment with things in an effort to have a platform to do things outside myself.”
“It has a mind of its own,” says Tim Wakefield. “You let it go and see where it takes you.” It is the knuckleball, and Wakefield was one of the few major league pitchers to make it his. “My whole career is the doubt of having a knuckleballer out there,” he adds. “That’s just how it is with a pitch that’s so unpredictable at times. I mean you look at the course of my career, it’s been ups and the downs, the good with the bad, the twists and the turns. You know, that’s what my pitch does.”
As Wakefield pauses, the camera cuts from his interview to a shot that’s equally lovely and enigmatic, Wakefield’s silhouette walking away, framed by a narrow doorway and dissolving into the bright yellow sunlight of the ball field beyond. The image—blurred and intriguing—sets up the story of the knuckleball, in Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s terrific documentary, in Knuckleball!, a story that’s both utterly specific and enticingly elusive.
“It’s the weirdest pitch, I think, in baseball,” former knuckleballer Charlie Hough doesn’t quite explain. “It has no true trajectory.” What it does have is a quirky history and ongoing mythology, intertwined in the film, which offers lessons on mechanics as well as lore. In a world that values speed and power and “immediate gratification,” as Newsday‘s David Lennon points out, the knuckleball is something of an anomaly, a slow pitch that doesn’t spin, that tricks batters and sometimes, pitchers too. Knuckleballers might strike out multiple opponents in a game, stunning rival teams and drawing the media’s hot spotlight. And they might not.
It’s this uncertainty—what Wakefield calls the doubt—that shapes the film. It’s focused through the two most recent pitchers to claim the pitch during their 2011 seasons, Wakefield, who, after being drafted the Pirates in 1992, spent 17 years, from 1995 to 2011, pitching for the Boston Red Sox, and R.A. Dickey, currently with the Mets, following 14 one-year non-guaranteed contracts with different teams.
Listening to the men who throw the knuckleball describe it, you get the idea it’s more an art more than a calculable skill. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t require years of effort or can’t be improved or adjusted, only that the pitch—even to those who make it their life’s work—remains strange and surprising, and also, perhaps most importantly, that it represents perpetual risk. And that can make it a tough sell in baseball, so notoriously in love with numbers and comparisons. Knuckleballers are frequently “odd men out,” as Wakefield observes, brought in as relievers when a game already looks lost: “Because of the knuckleball,” he notes, “They give up on us too quick, I think.”
At the same time, the knuckleball is something like the quintessence of baseball, the ineffable and the impossible, pursued again and again. The film makes this magic part especially visible, in slow motion sequences and archival game tapes (complete with announcers’ helpful narrations), nostalgia and reverie. “You need the fingertips of a safecracker and the mindset of a Zen Buddhist,” says Bouton, “Because you throw the ball off of your fingertips.” Dickey appears in the Mets locker room, the camera low and looking up as he files his nails. When a game goes wrong because he’s got a broken nail, Dickey explains, “It’s really like a quarterback with a broken pinky.” Still, he looks forward: “Hair and fingernails, I can grow. I’ve got a lot of protein excess.”
Knuckleballers are rare enough, you learn, that they’ve formed something of an informal club, with elders like Clough and Jim Bouton advising the younger athletes. In this case, “younger” is a relative term, for the knuckleball pitcher develops over time and typically plays longer than the average regular ball pitcher (the pitch travels 55-75 miles per hour, as opposed to today’s fastballs, typically over 95 miles per hour). “The knuckleball is a very patient pitch and that doesn’t fit in today’s society,” says Bouton, “It’s a pitch that develops over time over the course of a game, it gets better as you get older.” Wakefield is 44 during the 2011 season chronicled in Knuckleball!, during which he pursues 200 career wins.
The unusual longevity of the knuckleballer is underscored by the fact that there are so few of them in the history of the sport, rarely more than four or five working at the same time. As the New Yorker‘s Ben McGrath says, “You’re looking at about 70, maybe 80, pitchers who earned a living by pitching baseballs that don’t spin.”
Most obviously, the scarcity is partly a matter of difficulty. “Like most things, it’s a lot harder than it looks,” says Roger Angell. And like many things, it’s never quite resolved. Even when someone throws a great game or several, even a great season, no one can guess what happens the next time out. “It is erratic and it is difficult to do and when it’s not done well,” notes Hough, “It’s really bad.” And when it’s good, it can be thrilling.
This much is evident as the film opens in theaters and becomes available on VOD on 19 September, and the 37-year-old Dickey’s current season with the Mets has turned into his best yet. He’s won 18 games and inspired talk of a Cy Young Award. Certainly, Dickey’s personal story has been remarkable in any number of ways, but the film keeps focused on his knuckleball, or perhaps more accurately, his relationship with his knuckleball.