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Knuckleball! Review: An Exercise in Slow-Motion

Tim Wakefield, as captured in the documentary KNUCKLEBALL!, gets ready before one of his last starts during the final season of his career. (Getty Images)

As I sat in my white plastic folding chair in the middle of the World Financial Center Plaza, eyes glued to the massive five story screen erected along the Hudson River in New York City, Knuckleball! seemed to unfold in slow motion over the course of two hours.

Maybe it was because I was still star-struck from seeing former Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield instruct kids (oh to be young again!) how to hurl a knuckleball into a pile of hay bales stacked at the end of a batting cage inside the plaza.

Maybe it was because I had already talked to the film’s directors, which, along with watching Wakefield for my entire life as a Red Sox fan, gave me a good sense of what to expect.

Or maybe it was because so much of the documentary was literally in slow motion, showing each player’s drawn out delivery as they floated knuckleballs directly at special cameras fitted with protective plexiglass to capture precisely how the pitch comes off their fingers.

But really, the film seemed to unfold in slow motion because it was well done. Well-crafted and deftly shot, Knuckleball! was fun to watch even if you’re not a fan of baseball or the Red Sox. Still, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be a Red Sox fan for an enjoyable trip down memory lane, albeit not entirely without the reminder of painful memories along the way. After all, it was filmed during 2011. If you’re in the Boston area this Sat., April 28, I highly recommend you stop by the Somerville Theatre at 4:00pm to check it out.

The directors followed Wakefield and Dickey from the beginning of spring training through the end of the season, unfortunately including September and its horrific conclusion. (I include Mets fans as well, with Dickey revealing to the cameras in his hotel room how the players try to motivate themselves when the playoffs are out of reach. Now that I think about it, though, that sounds downright pleasant, actually.) We see Dickey’s Opening Day start – his first ever after 14 straight one-year, non-guaranteed contracts – ruined by a split nail that renders him about as effective as “a quarterback trying to throw without a pinky” (despite obsessively using his personal glass file to manicure the perfect knuckleball fingernails). We watch Wakefield’s growing pains of a different sort, as he sits helplessly in the bullpen as an unused long reliever before undergoing the prolonged and nearly fruitless search for his 200th win.

Both pitchers’ journeys to become knuckleballers were unprecedented, “born out of desperation,” as Phil Niekro put it. Pitching for the last competitive Pittsburgh Pirates the world might ever see, a young rookie Wakefield went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in 13 regular season starts as a converted power-hitting first baseman. He then outdueled Tom Glavine with two complete game victories in the NLCS that year, including a win to send the series to Game 7. Inducing one foolish swing-and-a-miss after another, Wakefield looked nigh unhittable. Never has the knuckleball seemed so sexy.

Dickey started as a flame-throwing pitcher out of Tennessee, before an injury (just a nonexistent ligament in his throwing arm, no big deal) derailed his path to the majors. Instead of cashing in on a cool $1 million insurance policy on his pitching arm, Dickey struggled to stay in the majors before Orel Hershiser eventually told him he had to become a knuckleballer if he wanted to keep playing. Six years later, his 80-mile-per-hour knuckler earned him that Opening Day start.

But despite all the in-game footage the film incorporates, the film’s finest moments come off the field. My favorite part of the film was seeing the community of knuckleballers and the ways they pull for one another. Wakefield and Dickey go golfing with Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough, two former knuckleballers who each mentored 2011’s only remaining patrons of the spinless pitch. Afterwards the four sit down to talk about the hitters they most hated to face (“I’d rather see Ryan Howard, Pujols, one of those power hitters than those little slappy hitters,” Dickey said) and how Wakefield once walked 10 batters in a complete game for his first ever win (“You are my idol!” said Dickey). Dickey even brought Hough film to break down why he was struggling, saying, “What the pitching coach says when he comes out doesn’t amount to much. ‘Hey, try throwing some of the ones that move!’”

Even with these moments of levity (at one point Doug Mirabelli points to his fading hair and says, “All these grays are Wakey’s”), the film was tough to swallow at times. At least, it was difficult to watch as a Boston fan hunkered down on an unforgiving seat of the plastic in the midst of a sea of Yankees and Mets fans. There was an extended scene breaking down Wakefield’s fateful pitch to Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, forcing me not only to watch the bleeping home run time and again, but also backwards. That was a new form of torture for me. I also got to witness Bill Buckner’s fielding skills in the 1986 World Series, which was no less painful despite occurring before I was even born.

The movie concludes with the same resolution as Wakefield’s career, with his retirement speech this past February. Full of tears and thank yous, Wakefield leaves R.A. Dickey “to carry the torch for a while” in his final goodbye after a career reinvented by a single slow-motion pitch. But even though Wakefield’s playing days are officially done, the film is worth watching over and over again to relive those seasons and those memories, and in doing so draw them out as long as possible.

About Nick Bohlen - @ndbohlen

Nick is an editor and regular contributor for the Patriots, Celtics, and Red Sox sections of SoB. (Despite growing up in Vermont, just a short drive from Canada, hockey never really caught on with him.) Follow him on twitter: @ndbohlen

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