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Knuckleball!: Film Review

Knuckleball!

The Bottom Line

Well-produced sports doc puts viewers in the pitchers' shoes.

Opens

Thursday, September 20

Directors

Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg

Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's doc follows the two pitchers currently most associated with the knuckleball, Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey.

NEW YORK — A quirky aspect of baseball lore gets the once-over in Knuckeball!, with directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg -- who've trained their documentary lens on everything from genocide in Darfur to Joan Rivers -- examining what makes the storied pitch so peculiar, and how hard the game can be for its practitioners. Though not novel enough to attract non-devotees of America's Pastime, the film should please fans on the small screen.

Centering on the two pitchers currently most associated with the knuckleball, Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the film follows what turned out to be the former's final season on the field -- a year in which he pursued his 200th win while Dickey established himself at the New York Mets. Dickey took his time getting to Citi Field: He recalls the 37 times he and his family moved as he bounced from team to team waiting for his break -- going so far as to sleep in his car during a stint in Puerto Rico.

In following their careers, Stern and Sundberg suggest such precariousness goes with the territory for those who specialize in this pitch: Even in the best of times, the knuckleball is "a distrusted art" that managers are loath to rely on. And that's before little worries other ballplayers don't have -- because the pitch is manipulated with the fingernails, trying to throw with a cracked nail is "like a quarterback throwing without a pinky."

Wakefield and Dickey come across as likeable guys, more so when seen in the company of those who went before them -- fraternity members like Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough (we're told that only around 70 or 80 players have made their livings pitching knuckleballs in the game's modern history), who swap stories with the youngsters about the hitters they worried about the most.

The filmmakers spend a bit of time talking to some of those hitters, and to the catchers who blame gray hairs on trying to track this pitch's unpredictable trajectory. They do a bit to explain how the ball moves, working in some appealing slo-mo photography (visuals are strong across the board), but nerds in the crowd -- and won't nerds make up the film's key demo? -- might wish they had gone outside the realm of sport, bringing in an egghead physics prof to explain how, exactly, the knuckleball can change trajectory so many times between the mound and the plate.

Production Company: Break Thru Films
Directors: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Producers: Dan Cogan, Christine Schomer, Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Executive producers: Neil Barsky, William T. Conway, Morgan Spurlock
Director of photography: Charles Miller
Music: Paul Brill
Editor: Pax Wassermann
No rating, 93 minutes.