Think for a moment about the greatest pitches you've ever seen. Randy Johnson's slider. Pedro Martinez's changeup. Mariano Rivera's cutter. What do they have in common, beyond their ability to make major-league hitters look like fools? Control and repeatability. The key to any pitcher's success is not only the ability to throw a great pitch, but to do so every time, bending the baseball to his will and making it go exactly where he wants it to. Andrew Miller comes swiftly to mind as an easy example of the guy who can make a baseball do terrible things to a hitter's timing, but can't figure out how to do so all the time. Maintaining control is everything.
Yet for a very small group of pitchers, their success comes from their ability to sacrifice their control over the baseball, to let the wind take the pitch and do what it wants. When throwing a knuckleball, the last thing one wants is to impart any control to the ball. The entire point is to keep the ball from spinning, and let its trajectory go wherever the air currents take it. It's a harrowing way to make a living, and the men who throw a knuckler are always a few unfriendly gusts from getting released.
The lives of two of those men form the core of the new documentary Knuckleball!, which I was lucky enough to see at the Boston Independent Film Festival several weeks ago. With the Red Sox celebrating Tim Wakefield Day at Fenway, it seemed the time to put up a review.
Rather than simply provide a dry history of the knuckleball itself, Knuckleball! takes a look at the two most recent practitioners of the art, Wakefield and the Mets' R.A. Dickey, and the journeys that brought them to the knuckler. Full career retrospectives on both are interspersed with moments from the 2011 season, in which Dickey adjusted to his status as a top starter for New York and Wakefield pursued his 200th win.
We all have a pretty solid idea of Wake's bio, having followed him for so long. Drafted by Pittsburgh as a power-hitting corner infielder, Wakefield floundered in the minors. Facing outright release, he was saved by a coach who'd seen him toying around with a knuckler in practice, and thought it might be worth cultivating. In 1992, he got called up to the bigs, and went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in 13 starts, and threw two complete game wins in the NLCS against Atlanta. (Fun note: Tim Wakefield is the last man to win a postseason game for the Pirates) The next year, he was given the top spot in the rotation, and fell apart, eventually getting released and picked up by Boston. The rest, of course, you know.
Dickey's story is quite similar. He was drafted out of college as a pitcher in the traditional fireballer mode, but injuries plagued him throughout the minors and his early work in the majors. He'd always practiced a knuckleball on the side, and finally decided to use it as his primary offering. Since joining the Mets as a full-time knuckleballing starter in 2010, he's put up a 119 ERA+, and been one of the few bright spots for New York over the last few years.
The film's full of great little side anecdotes and player testimonials about the knuckler and the vagaries of its path. A personal favorite was a rather softened-looking Doug Mirabelli pointing to the white hairs above his temple and saying "See these? These are Wakie's." As a history nerd, I'd have enjoyed a bit more on the story of the knuckleball going back to its origins. There's a great deal of material on the Niekro brothers and knuckleballers of the last half-century, but never anything on why someone first started throwing it back in the early days of baseball. The film is also a bit light on the physics of the pitch, beyond a basic description of its lack of spin. This doesn't hurt the movie too much, though, since a great deal of its appeal lies in the characterization of the knuckleball as basically magic.
The knuckleball-as-magic angle is perhaps the most fascinating part of the film. Watching Dickey and Wakefield talk about their path toward knucklerhood, and their interactions with the men who threw the pitch before them, one can't help but think of them as keepers of an ancient secret. The list of knuckleball pitchers is incredibly short, and they're all connected to each other, trading tips, giving advice, and providing reassurance. When Charlie Hough reviews video with R.A. Dickey, or Tim Wakefield swaps stories with Phil Niekro, you're seeing camaraderie in action, the bond of giving your life over to a pitch that could abandon you at any time.
The film ends with Wakefield's retirement, and the reality of Dickey as the last remaining knuckleballer. It's possible, given the difficulties of the pitch, and its inherent unpredictability, he's the last we'll ever see. No one's going out of their way to draft knuckleballers, and so far as I know there aren't any serious practitioners in the minors at present. But then nobody starts out as a knuckleballer. They just sort of find their way into it. With any luck, there's a young pitcher or infielder looking for a chance who sees this film, and starts down the road toward the riskiest pitch in baseball. The game just wouldn't be the same without it.