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Sox on Screen: Black Magic in Knuckleball!

The knuckleball is a deal with the devil and Tim Wakefield is a witch.


Welcome to Sox on Screen, a weekly blog in which I watch some kind of Red Sox-related or Red Sox-adjacent movie, television show or whatnot and talk about it. This week I chose Knuckleball!, a 2012 documentary chronicling those who have built their careers around cultivating an eccentric pitch.

Knuckleball! follows a personal crusade for guys like Tim Wakefield — featured prominently — and R.A. Dickey, who felt their careers were referendums on the “legitimacy” and “validity” of the knuckleball. They knew part of the beauty of the knuckleball was its unpredictability, but that is what makes so many coaches and spectators wary about its long-term effectiveness.

The nerve is struck by the fact that it seems like the knuckleballer doesn’t have control over this pitch. Even if a pitcher doesn’t know exactly where their breaking pitches will end up, he can predict the spin and general direction. With a knuckleball, its destination is determined by the whim of the air surrounding it. The strategy behind the pitch is fragile so when it works, hitters feel cheated, like the victim of a dirty play.

The knuckleball is a parody of the ball player’s routine. In a game where the finest details matter the most, the knuckleball leaves a lot to chance, so much so that Dickey said mound visits rarely amounted to anything more than coaches saying “throw some of the ones that move this time”. Air has to hit the seams correctly, but abnormally to create an unpredictable sequence of lifts and ducks that force hitters to make split-second, unreliable decisions. The knuckleball has a reputation for being gimmicky or, as some in the film put it directly, a trick. The way some people talk about the knuckleball, you’d think anyone who throws it should be burned as a witch.

There is an element of black magic to the knuckleball. In exchange for increased longevity, pitchers surrender themselves to the random nature of the knuckler. In granting their signature pitch a life of its own, a knuckleballer takes away their own agency. This deal with the devil — one “born of necessity” according to David Lennon from Newsday — gives pitchers a shot at a longer life in baseball but with it comes the increased risk that the slow pitch will decide to leak over the middle of the plate and get launched into orbit.

This isn’t just a baseball myth, as the film outlines. It was real for so many players who threw this pitch. Growing up, they eventually realized that the bigger, faster and more talented were racing past them and this simple addition to their pitching arsenal was enough to give them a shot at the highest level of baseball. It’s not something everyone can do — since World War II there have been just two or three in the league at any one point. It’s a sacred group of people that organized on baseball’s smallest stages, in the background of triple-digit arms and an accelerating love affair with spin rate.”

Wakefield called his knuckleball “an act of desperation” and that’s really what it was for him and any team that signed him. No one took a chance on him until they had to and it took a long time before sending Wakefield out inspired any kind of confidence. Mastering the dark arts is not easy.

This documentary is a romantic view of knuckleballers and amounts to Dickey even anthropomorphizing the pitch by saying those in this small fraternity of throwers want to “always do right by the pitch”. There are allusions to the struggles that inform the decision to become a knuckleballer, but its emphasis is naturally on the success stories. Wakefield is one of the few to have made what Lennon described as “a freakish pitch” into something reliable and successful but there are countless untold stories of failure beyond just the kid that couldn’t get the right grip while fooling around in the backyard.

There is a reason players like this don’t exist by the dozens or hundreds around professional baseball — it is a meticulous and dying art form but that only grows the celebrity of those who reach the summit with this pitch as the primary weapon in their arsenal.

Knuckleballers like Wakefield are memorable and special to us because of their commitment to finding a way to succeed by any means possible. It is one great equalizer for those short of incredible talent and athletic ability. Colored as an old man’s pitch, the knuckleball is ageless and patient. It demands time to cultivate and master and even get to the plate; but the ride it takes you on is certainly never boring.