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I have always dreamed of being a major league baseball player, but in the last few years, as I’ve grown up from an adolescent benchwarmer on my high school baseball team to a still slightly immature but somewhat more realistic 23-year-old, my baseball idols have shifted. Instead of the Nomar Garciaparras and the Nolan Ryans, I’ve come to want to be the Tim Wakefields and the R.A. Dickeys.
Simply put, I can’t hit 25 home runs or 95 miles per hour on the radar gun, but in the corner of my mind, Wakefield and Dickey’s slow-dancing knuckleball came to represent the my far-fetched fantasy ticket to the big leagues.
But then Wakefield retired, leaving New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey as the lone bastion of the knuckleball tradition, and my last hope for professional baseball stardom was fading with the dying breed of knuckleballers.
Luckily for Red Sox fans, knuckleball enthusiasts, and 23-year-old adult-children, filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern made the film Knuckleball!, capturing Wakefield’s final season and following Dickey as he makes a name for himself after bouncing around the minors for years.
The documentary will premiere this Saturday, April 21 in New York as part of the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival. There will be a free, outdoor screening of the film at the World Financial Center Plaza in New York City starting at approximately 8:15 p.m. (Knuckleball! will also be showing the following dates: Sunday, 4/22 at 3:00 p.m. at the AMC Loews Village 7-1; Friday, 4/27 at 4:00 p.m. at the AMC Loews Village 7-2, and Saturday, 4/28 at 4:00 p.m. at the Tribeca Cinemas Theater 2. You can also visit the official Tribeca Film Festival website for the full schedule.)
Having just finished directing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Sundberg and Stern were looking to do a sports project when producers and baseball fanatics Dan Cogan and Christine Schomer brought the project to them. They had just two weeks to make a decision before heading down to spring training in Fort Meyers to meet with Wakefield and flying out west to meet Dickey.
How does one move from Joan Rivers, host of Fashion Police, to reinvented major league pitchers as the subjects of your movie, you might ask?
“For our films, we like to do character driven documentaries and make them about the people,” Stern told me. “We could have done an analytical or essay-type film on the knuckleball, but decided to tell the story through its characters. So in some ways, it’s not that different from a film about a comedian.”
“Both Joan and Tim Wakefield have been around media for their whole careers, so they’re both media savvy, except Tim, as an athlete, is accustomed to talking in sound bites. With the type of questions they always get from the media asking them about their performance, athletes are constantly looking forward to the next day, which made it challenging to tell a reflective story, especially since Wakefield was in the midst of his career. We did a lot of interviews with him to tease out different shades of his story.”
As both directors emphasized repeatedly, “It’s not a traditional sports doc.” Even though the film centers on Wakefield, Dickey, and the knuckleball as the “three characters,” its message extends far beyond the professional athlete and the avid sports fan.
“I think the film has a universal message,” Stern said. “We’re not necessarily huge sports fans, but it still is a film and a story that we wanted to make, one for general audiences that doesn’t have to be into sports.”
Sundberg added, “One thing we’re hoping will resonate is how the knuckleballers have reinvented themselves in so many ways, much like how people will reinvent themselves to find work in these hard economic times. They showed perseverance and resilience. It’s not easy coming to grips with not being the best and recommitting yourself to a new path.”
“I think their back story, how they got to where they are is something we all can relate to,” said Stern. “We all can understand being a young kid with dreams and the impediments that stand in your way, and what you do to overcome those obstacles along the way. It’s inspirational not just for professional athletes, but to everyone.”
This brought me to the question I had been waiting to ask all along. Did that inspiration apply to me? Was I right to gaze on the knuckleball as a beacon of hope, that I might be able to master its spinless art and realize that dream hidden in the farthest reaches of my mind? Or was that 4.50 ERA and 9-12 record I wanted to hold in my fingernails in the form of a knuckleball far more difficult than I could possibly imagine?
“A lot of people assume that they can throw it, and it allows a lot of people to dream,” Sundberg told me. (So far so good.) “But it’s a lot harder than it looks.” (I knew there was a catch!)
“Tim had a phenomenal career with it, but even he has said it’s an incredibly fickle and difficult pitch. You don’t have to be a strong person to throw it, though, and many people think the first woman to play in the major leagues will be a knuckleballer. But it takes a lot of craftsmanship and finesse.”
Well, did either of you manage to learn how to throw the knuckleball in the process of making the film?
“I would say we both learned the technique but we definitely cannot throw one,” Stern replied.
Sigh. Oh well. Looks like R.A. Dickey will have to bear the fluttering knuckleball torch without us. At least the documentary Knuckleball! will be on hand to keep the dream alive, one that you and I can live, too. If only as our dreams projected on a silver screen.