Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bears On Film: Knuckleball!

Hi, everyone!  It's us, Joey and Iggy Beartran, coming at you from the Tribeca Film Festival, where we were treated to VIP treatment for the premiere of Knuckleball!, a documentary on the dying art of knuckleball pitching and the fraternity that the pitch has created amongst its throwers.

Before we discuss the film, we'd like to share the beautiful movie poster we won (see photo to the left), which was autographed by four of the protagonists of the film.  In all, three former major league knuckleball pitchers (Jim Bouton, Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield) and one current knuckler (the Mets' own R.A. Dickey) signed the poster.   All four were also in attendance at the premiere, as were the film's director and producer.

Before the film, we were treated to live music (courtesy of Moon Hooch) and a surprise appearance by Mr. Met.  Then, shortly after sundown, the film began.  (Did we mention it was an outdoor premiere, similar to a drive-in experience, except that we took the subway and we didn't catch anyone making out in the backseat of their car?)

The film began with the recently retired Tim Wakefield, as he was searching for his 200th career victory last year.  Most of the film dealt with Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, with occasional appearances and interviews with other knuckleball pitchers such as Jim Bouton, Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Tom Candiotti and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro.

In one particular memorable scene, Dickey, Wakefield, Hough and Niekro gathered together for a golf outing (Dickey can really drive the ball, while Niekro, golfing in his Atlanta Braves cap, looked like Jack Nicklaus but couldn't play like him) and a chat.  The brothers-in-knuckles discussed the toughest hitters they faced in the major leagues among other topics.

Charlie Hough claimed Mark Salas was his toughest out.  This is the same Mark Salas who was a catcher for six teams in his eight-year career and finished with a lifetime .247 batting average and a mere 319 hits.  But against Hough, Salas turned into Babe Ruth, batting .433 (13-for-30) with three home runs.  For two seasons (1986-87), Salas was unconscious against Hough, batting .692 (9-for-13) with an ungodly 1.385 slugging percentage.  R.A. Dickey called Salas a "slappie", which was an affectionate term for a good contact hitter who would always fight off knuckleballs until they were able to get one that didn't knuckle as much.

For Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield, their toughest outs were players who were good hitters against many pitchers, not just knuckleball artists.  Niekro admitted to having a rough time with Bill Buckner, while Wakefield hated facing Darryl Strawberry, which was proven when the film cut to footage of the Straw Man hitting a titanic home run off Wakefield in the old Yankee Stadium that cleared the side of the upper deck and hit a garage door in the back of the stadium.  (In case you were wondering, the scene with the four knucklers ended without Dickey naming his toughest out, although he later admitted that Carlos Delgado always hit him well, while Derek Jeter was a player who did not fare well against him.)

From there on, the film focused on Wakefield's rise to the major leagues as a converted infielder who couldn't hit and culminated with his 200th victory on September 13, 2011.  The use of old footage was amazing, especially when showing his rise and fall with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992 and 1993.

R.A. Dickey gives an interview while Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough pose for photos behind him. 

In the case of R.A. Dickey, there were times when his story mirrored the events detailed in his book, Wherever I Wind Up.  For a moment, we thought we were watching the movie adaptation of his book and not a story about knuckleball pitchers over the years, especially in a scene that discussed his missing ulnar collateral ligament and various scenes featuring his wife, Anne.  The other knucklers' spouses did not make appearances in the film, save for a short scene with Stacy Wakefield.

As Mets fans, of course we were attracted to Dickey's rise from a highly-touted conventional pitcher to a journeyman pitcher who moved 37 times to pursue his dream.  But the Wakefield story was also intriguing and was discussed at length in the film.  The director did a fine job in showing how Wakefield became a knuckleball pitcher and how he used that unpredictable pitch to become one of the Red Sox' all-time winningest pitchers.  But it also showed just how that pitch can lead to unfortunate moments, such as the home run Wakefield gave up to Aaron Boone to end the 2003 American League Championship Series.

After giving up the home run, Wakefield claimed that he thought he was going to be Bill Buckner for a new generation of Red Sox fans (yes, Mets fans, we do get to see Mookie hitting the ball through Buckner's legs as Wakefield talks about this), but instead, he was not vilified in Boston.  Rather, he was appreciated for everything he gave the team over his long career with the Red Sox.  This revelation then led to the scene in the film when Wakefield finally achieved his landmark 200th victory, followed by footage of his retirement in February 2012, where Wakefield thanked all the knuckleballers that came before him and passed the torch to R.A. Dickey.  It was truly a beautiful story and an outstanding job of editing.

All in all, we enjoyed the film very much.  Of course, we might be biased as Mets fans because of all the attention given to R.A. Dickey.  (Look out for a scene in the film where Dickey talks about his chances of making a start after tearing his fingernail, claiming that he should have no problem because his body tends to generate an excess amount of protein, which leads to fingernail growth - he also claims this is why he has no difficulty growing hair.)   But even without Dickey's screen time, the film was quite an effort by the director/producer team of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.

Unlike an actual knuckleball, which tends to go all over the place before settling in (or bouncing off) the catcher's mitt, the film Knuckleball! was easy to follow and a pleasure to watch.  It provided fantastic insight into the rarely-used pitch and the men who made a living throwing it.  We highly recommend it and give it two paws up.  (We'd give it two knuckles up, but we don't have any knuckles...)

For our review of Moneyball, please click here.  No, there is no truth to the rumor that we only review films with balls in their titles.  That's just a coincidence, although we did enjoy Meatballs and Spaceballs.

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