Baseball is a war of attrition. Even the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time; even the best teams can lose 70 times in a season. That constant battle with failure is what makes "Knuckleball!" such a great representation of the sport. The documentary -- which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday night and screened to rousing applause on Sunday afternoon -- focuses on a single pitch, the knuckleball, and how those who dare to master its fluttering eccentricities are really what makes baseball baseball.
Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg ("Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"), "Knuckleball!" highlights the last two Major League Baseball players to earn their living throwing a knuckleball
over around the plate: former Boston Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield and current New York Mets starter R.A. Dickey.
(For those who don't know, a knuckleball is thrown using the fingernails, and it differs from normal pitches like a fastball or curveball, because the ball doesn't spin as it heads toward home plate.)
Over the course of the 2011 season, Stern and Sundberg tracked the ups and downs of Wakefield and Dickey, which included injury, embarrassment, losses, questions of self-worth and, for Wakefield and his Red Sox teammates, one epic collapse. The 2011 Red Sox blew a nine-game lead in September, and missed the playoffs in catastrophic fashion. (It was later revealed that many of the starters were drinking beer in the clubhouse during games; Stern said they decided to leave that part out to make the film feel more "evergreen.")
What makes "Knuckleball!" resonate, though, isn't the access that Sundberg and Stern were afforded (Stern noted that baseball players often have "practiced soundbite relationships" with sports writers), nor the historical background they give with help from past knuckleballers Charlie Hough and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. It's Dickey and Wakefield, two men of upstanding character and intelligence, who know firsthand what it's like to fail. Wakefield, who retired earlier this year after 19 seasons, was initially drafted as a first baseman, and only turned to pitching and the knuckleball out of desire to keep his roster spot; Dickey was a highly regarded prospect who saw his career derailed by ineffectiveness and missed opportunities.
"They are such great characters. The fact Tim was on his way and R.A. was on his way in -- it just seemed like a beautiful way to tell the full story, from the beginning to the end," Stern said during the post-screening Q&A. "All our films are based in characters. It's individual stories as a way to make a bigger picture."
Produced with help from Major League Baseball -- an invaluable asset for Stern and Sundberg, as it allowed them procure lots of archival footage -- "Knuckleball!" is a clear-eyed (and full-hearted) sports film that manages to also become about something greater: the desire to keep moving forward, no matter how steep the odds.
"In some ways, it really helped us not knowing that much about baseball. We weren't trapped in the history of it," said Stern. "What we were looking at were the themes of the knuckleball, which we've always felt were the idea of reinvention, of perseverance. Of committing to something and maybe taking the road less traveled."
"Knuckleball!" screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. For more on the Tribeca Film Festival, click here.