Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern didn't know much about baseball before the 2011 major league season. The co-directors of the documentary "Knuckleball!" had different views of the pitch that would be the centerpiece of their film.
"I knew only that it was a disparaged pitch," Sundberg said. "My husband's old friend from college had nothing good to say about the knuckleball, so that's all I knew. It has a lot to do with this idea that it's not a real pitch, that it shouldn't be held up to the same effect as some of the other pitches like the curveball or fastball."
"I walked into my kitchen and told my kids about making a film about Tim Wakefield and knuckleball pitchers, and my kids picked up apples and started knuckling them around the kitchen," Stern said. "They were New York City kids who grew up as Red Sox fans and so they had to be very strong in their convictions, and they love Tim Wakefield and the knuckleball, so their reaction was, 'Woohoo let's do it!'"
Despite their lack of familiarity with the subject, the two women, best known for their Emmy-nominated documentary films "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" and "The Devil Came On Horseback" (about the genocide in Darfur) jumped at the chance to bring the story of the controversial, oft-misunderstood pitch that has baffled batters and catchers for decades to the big screen.
"We're really attracted to the characters -- the individuals and people who have obstacles and something to overcome in pursuit of their dreams," Stern said. "For us, that just makes strong storytelling. The essence of what the symbolic meaning of the knuckleball embodies. These guys are outliers in baseball who struggle against all odds to stay in the game to pursue their dreams. They kind of clawed their way, as they say, with their fingertips -- just like one holds the ball with one's fingertips -- back into the major leagues."
"These guys" refers primarily to Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the two knuckleball pitchers in the majors during the 2011 season. It also includes retired knuckleballers, Charlie Hough, Jim Bouton, Tom Candiotti, Wilbur Wood and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who are a handful of the approximately 80 men who have been members of the knuckleball fraternity.
"You need the fingertips of a safecracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist," longtime major leaguer Bouton said in the film when describing the talents required to master the unpredictable pitch.
With unprecedented access to Wakefield and Dickey -- as well as their families -- from spring training through the end of the 2011 season, Stern and Sundberg directed an endearing, engaging 90-minute documentary about the knuckleball and the men who have managed to make their careers throwing a baseball that doesn't spin.
Despite being filled with lots of beautifully shot baseball footage (MLB is a co-producer) and intricate discussions of the pitch with former players and baseball beat writers, "Knuckleball!" isn't really a baseball movie.
"What I like most about the movie is as a baseball movie, it's really a non-baseball movie," Wakefield said. "Even though it's a documentary on the pitch, it's a documentary on the lives of two guys who are searching for a way to live out our dreams. It's a story of how I got to where I'm at and obviously R.A.'s story of making it on a pitch that he had no idea he could throw. It's a pretty cool life story -- and [Ricki and Annie] did such a fantastic job adding a poetic twist to it. Coming from two women who didn't know a whole lot about baseball, but knew enough to make the film great."
Wakefield is 19-year major league veteran who retired after the 2011 season with 200 career wins. He turned to the knuckleball as a last resort when he realized as an infielder that he could no longer hit. Dickey, who at 37 was a National League All-Star this season and is a contender for the Cy Young Award, converted to a knuckleball in 2005 as a last-ditch effort to stay in baseball.
"Most of us turned to the pitch because we stink at other things," Dickey said. "What we grew up being able to do well we can no longer do well, and so we turned to this thing that we place our hope in and that we work real hard at to do the things that are necessary to try to hone it.
"The narrative is not about a pitch as much as it's about man's quest to be more than what people think that he can be."
Baseball fans will remember and recognize much of the on-field action depicted in the film, notably Dickey's emergence on the Mets staff and Wakefield's quest for his elusive 200th career win. The directors left out the historic late-season collapse of the Red Sox to ensure the film remained "evergreen."
But a major highlight of the film took place away from the ballpark -- on the golf course. The directors brought Dickey, Wakefield, Niekro and Hough together for a golf weekend where the four knuckleballers could talk shop and share stories.
"My favorite part [of the film] was with those three men in my life," Dickey said. "Those guys have all, in some way, poured into me their knuckleball acumen. To be with them, reunited, after having a modicum of success was awesome. To be able to celebrate that with them. And more than that, we've become friends, and I don't know if there's ever been a time when four knuckleballers have ever gotten together in a room and told stories and played golf. That was a pretty special thing for all of us."
Wakefield didn't hide his wonder and excitement when talking about the weekend with Dickey, Niekro and Hough.
"I thought it was the coolest thing that's ever happened to me," said Wakefield, who won two World Series titles with the Red Sox. "Being able to sit in a room with three other knuckleballers and just talk knuckleballs. You can't just sit in a room and talk it with anybody else."
Niekro stood out among the group not just because he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, but because he's the only one to be signed as a knuckleball pitcher. He's disappointed that only one of the fraternity remains in baseball this season, but he has been blown away by Dickey's performance.
"I don't think any other knuckleballer has had the success he's having or a year like he's having," Niekro said. "If he doesn't win the Cy Young, there's definitely something wrong with the voting."
Beyond boosting the legitimacy of the knuckleball, Niekro hopes the film will inspire future knuckleballers to pick up the pitch.
"A lot of people feel like it's a gimmick pitch; it's not," Niekro said. "It's a pitch that can get you to the big leagues and win big league games, and I think that's what guys need to realize. I don't care what people think about me. I don't care if I throw it hard or slow or semislow. This is my ticket, I'm going to make a living by this and this is going to be my career. You're just as much of a bull out there as guys throwing 80, 90, 95 miles an hour; you've just gotta make that mental adjustment in your mind. This is it, I'm going to throw it. I don't care what anybody thinks about it, I can get in the big leagues with it, and if I'm good enough, I can stay there with it."
Like Niekro and his fellow knuckleballers, Hough hopes the film will help people understand the pitch and what it takes to succeed.
"People have said to me, 'Oh I can hit that,' and maybe you could, maybe you can't, but most likely you can't," Hough said. "They don't realize how hard it is to do, and I think if people realized that and realized where it comes from -- we are just guys that want to compete in a game that's very difficult. The baseball world doesn't really care about having a knuckleball pitcher, so it's a tough road and it shows just how tough it is."