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Movie review: Knuckleball!


Full disclosure: Bucs Dugout's own David Todd recorded some dialogue for Knuckleball!, so you'll occasionally (and by "occasionally" I mean "once," although maybe David will correct me on that) hear his voice narrating over game action. Straight off, though, I'm proud of him for being involved in a film that's this good.

The stars of Knuckeball! are Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, and the film follows them around through the 2011 season. The idea is that, with Wakefield's career coming to an end, Dickey will be the only one left carrying the torch. There are so many strange things about the knuckleball, beginning with the fact that only a few major-leaguers at a time actually use it, to the fact that knuckleballers tend to have much later peaks than most players, to the pitch itself.

This film does a great job explaining all that strangeness. It helps that, apparently, almost every living pitcher who threw the knuckler can explain very cogently how he used it. Wakefield and especially Dickey both come off as smart players who are grateful for what they have -- Dickey, in particular, is a calm, intelligent presence throughout the film. The film also features interviews with knuckleballers throughout history: Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood and so on.

There are long scenes of Wakefield and/or Dickey talking baseball with Niekro and/or Hough, and apparently that's not something that was just staged for the movie. Niekro helped Wakefield get back on his feet with the Red Sox after the Pirates released him. (And Niekro takes a shot at the Pirates for that decision. The Pirates are portrayed somewhat more favorably earlier in the film, when Wakefield explains that the Pirates' Woody Huyke was the first to notice that Wakefield, who was drafted as a first baseman, might have success with the knuckler.) And there's also footage of Hough talking through the finer points of the knuckler with Dickey.

The older knuckleballers are like practitioners of a dying language -- it seems important to them that the knuckleball go on in some way, and so they seem extremely generous with their time and advice. One senses that Wakefield and Dickey will be the same way when some young pitcher comes to them for guidance. It probably doesn't hurt that the knuckleball involves being an outsider -- most of them struggle, as both Wakefield and Dickey did, before they have sustained success, and most of their fellow pitchers don't approach their jobs in anywhere near the same way. Dickey, in a conversation with Hough, jokes openly about how his own pitching coach can't really help him.

There are interviews with other players too. Doug Mirabelli, who jokes that his now-gray hair is Wakefield's fault, talks about the experience of trying to catch the knuckler. And a bunch of current and former players -- Carlos Beltran, Gary Sheffield, and so on -- talk about trying to hit it.

The visuals in the movie are also a joy to watch. The movie attempts to explain a lot of things using high-concept effects, usually with great success. There's one scene in particular where Aaron Boone's 2003 ALCS-ending homer off Wakefield is shown backwards, so that Boone runs backwards down the first-base line and swings backwards at a ball that quickly disappears into Wakefield's hand. I wish I had seen this film on a big screen, but sadly, no.

So, to summarize: David is involved in this film. You can get it here. I like it as much as I've liked any baseball film since Sugar. And I'm a big R.A. Dickey fan now.