Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey arrived to Saturday’s Knuckleball! premiere event at downtown Manhattan’s World Financial Center Plaza straight from Citi Field and a win over the San Francisco Giants. Gazing at the photographers and film reporters encroaching on his personal space, he didn’t hesitate in answering EW’s first question: What’s harder — beating the Giants or doing all this Tribeca Film Festival press? “This,” he said with a laugh. “Well, maybe it’s not harder, but it’s certainly overwhelming.” He smiled. “But it’s exciting! The film is beautiful and I think it captures what the pitch is and also the lives of the men that throw it.”
Knuckleball!, directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), is indeed about this enigmatic, erratic, and rarely thrown pitch that, when thrown correctly, looks deceptively easy. But in fact, it’s a pitch that — thrown with the fingernails to eliminate spin — makes it impossible for anyone (including the pitcher) to predict where it will go. Few have mastered it, and since Boston’s Tim Wakefield retired earlier this year, Dickey is the only current player in the league still using it.
The documentary (an audience favorite) aims to deconstruct the pitch and the men who’ve used it to their advantage, and follows Wakefield and Dickey, the last two knuckleballers, through the 2011 season. For both men there are highs and lows (remember when the Red Sox missed the playoffs last year in spectacular fashion?), injuries and self-doubt — and this being a sports movie in the best sense, also plenty of heart-warming triumph.
“Since Tim was the only [knuckleballer] for so long, I’ve been able to kind of come take the torch,” said Dickey. “There hasn’t been any hype around anyone who can perform this pitch. I hope people will want to embrace it more now — managers, the front office, and players. It takes a lot of dedication. There’s a real temperament to be able to do it.” (Dickey said all of his four children — two daughters and two sons — already have a pretty good knuckleball grip.)
Wakefield and Dickey joined famed knuckleballers Charlie Hough and Jim Bouton to teach a pitching clinic outside to some delighted kids (and their dads) before the premiere on Saturday. “It’s something that’s been a myth for so many years,” said Wakefield. “I think this film shows not only our lives but teaches something about the pitch as well.”
Hough, longtime pitcher for the Texas Rangers and the Dodgers (where he now works as a senior advisor) surveyed the crowd from behind oversized sunglasses. “It’s a rather odd story, I guess,” he said. “The ones of us here today, we just kind of stumbled into it. We got a chance and won a job, really. Knuckleball gave us the ability to compete with the best in the business.” He added, “I loved being out there. I hated having to quit. I was a 12-year-old till I was 46.” He laughed. “And I haven’t grown up since, either.”