‘Fastball’: Film Review

Fastball Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Fastball Still - H 2016

In the strike zone for ardent as well as casual fans

A documentary zeros in on the history, mythology and science of a specific aspect of baseball.

Baseball, a sport that’s increasingly stats-driven yet still somehow lyrical, gets a fresh look-see in Fastball. Boiling down the game to the faceoff between pitcher and batter — or, as narrator Kevin Costner puts it, “a primal battle between a man with a stick and man with a rock” — Jonathan Hock’s engaging documentary is, by definition, one that leaves many facets of the sport out of the equation. Even catchers, a crucial element of any at-bat, barely get a mention as Hock zeroes in on the dynamics, both personal and scientific, of high-speed throwing in the major leagues.

The lively MLB-produced doc’s choice archival material and full roster of new interviews will delight fans, both as a warm-up to the 2016 season and beyond. Hitting web platforms at the same time that it kicks off a limited theatrical run, and perfectly at home on the small screen, the film scores not just because it’s entertaining and enlightening. In a news-making bit that’s sure to light up the fan network, the filmmakers enlist experts’ know-how to sort through a century’s worth of disparate measurement systems and crown an all-time fastball champ (whose identity won’t be revealed here).

Before radar guns, clocking a pitch during a baseball game wasn’t an option. But inquiring minds wanted to know, and each period’s most sophisticated methods stepped up to the extracurricular plate, and are captured here in evocative stills and clips. In 1912, Idaho wunderkind Walter “Big Train” Johnson, whose prowess put the fastball on the map, became the first pitcher to have his throws timed. The historic event took place at a ballistics range. Another prodigy, Bob Feller, was timed in 1939 against a speeding motorcycle. He gave the rider a head start, and easily prevailed.

Hock, whose documentary credits include several episodes of ESPN’s 30 for 30, collects the testimony of pitchers as well as the players who have faced their speeding-bullet hardballs. The predator-and-prey theme is a constant thread in their testimony, as are words like “fear” and “intimidation.” Summing up the sound of a fastball coming at you, recent MLB retiree Derek Jeter says, “It sounds like trouble.”

Hock’s new interviews, with contemporary aces like the Tigers’ Justin Verlander and the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman, and with seasoned Hall of Famers including Nolan Ryan, “Goose” Gossage and Bob Gibson, elicit observations that avoid sports-ese jargon, with Gibson delving deeper than the pitcher’s mound to address the pervasiveness of racism. “I felt I had to be better to get just as far,” he says.

As for the scientific testimony that Hock has gathered — ultra-helpful chalkboard diagrams included — it’s concise, clear and fascinating. There’s the physics of the throw — the 396 milliseconds it takes a 100 mph fastball to reach home plate — but also the brain science, which explains why the difference between 100 mph and 90 mph determines the batter’s ability to see the ball, let alone predict its trajectory. The Ph.D.’s declare the “rising fastball” an impossibility and optical illusion; players who faced Sandy Koufax insist that it’s real.

Hock interweaves the commentary of a Greek chorus of sorts that he’s convened at Cooperstown’s baseball museum, composed of five revered old-timers. Johnny Bench, George Brett, the late Tony Gwynn, Al Kaline and Joe Morgan trade and compare good-natured memories of who threw fastest, hardest and “nastiest.” Whatever they’ve gone on to do since their MLB careers, it’s clear that they’re in their element talking shop with people who speak their language.

Everyone interviewed, whether pitcher, batter or physicist, is tantalized by the topic. And though the doc’s organization can feel a bit haphazard, and there’s repetition across its overlapping chapters, it’s never dull. Without destroying the sheer poetry of the matchup between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, Hock explains it all, and in the process pays tribute to the extraordinary speed factor of a game that has been damned for its slowness.

Production companies: Thomas Tull in association with Major League Baseball
With: Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Goose Gossage, Derek Jeter, Justin Verlander, George Brett, Johnny Bench, Al Kaline, Tony Gwynn, Joe Morgan
Narrator: Kevin Costner 
Director: Jonathan Hock
Screenwriter: Jonathan Hock 
Producers: Thomas Tull, Philip Aromando, Mike Tollin
Executive producer: Jack Selby
Director of photography: Alastair Christopher
Editors: Peter Panagoulias, Steven Pilgrim
Composer: Tony Morales

No rating, 86 minutes