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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Boston's Tim Wakefield wielded the "circus pitch" to build a nearly 20-year career.

In Movies & TV Reviews

The Mets' R.A. Dickey (18-4 at the time of writing) is the only knuckleballer currently working in the majors.

"Knuckleball!" shares inspiring stories of a "circus pitch"


When Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield retired early in 2012, he was the oldest pitcher in the majors. He pitched for 19 seasons – 17 with the BoSox – and had more than 200 wins, 186 of them with Boston, a mere six victories short of setting a team record.

But Wakefield was a big-hitting position player when he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. And after one bad season in the minors, the Pirates were ready to cut him loose. Until they found out he knew how to throw a knuckleball.

In a game in which speed is revered and a 100 miles per hour pitch draws gasps and awe, Tim Wakefield made a career – and a pretty stellar one at that – flicking a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches at speeds that sometimes hovered around 66 miles per hour.

Wakefield's story is just part of the tale recounted in "Knuckleball!," a new documentary filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg ("Joan Rivers A Piece Of Work" and "The Devil Came On Horseback"). The film opens in select cities this month and is available on demand beginning Sept. 18.

The fun of watching a knuckleballer, especially the modern knuckleballers like Wakefield and the Mets' R.A. Dickey, is seeing normally formidable battles twisted up in knots as they attempt to connect with a wiggling, jiggling, dropping baseball sauntering over the plate.

But there's a downside, too. Lots of passed balls as catchers often struggle as much as hitters at guessing where the ball is headed and, as any knuckleballer will tell you, when you're hot you're hot. And, of course, when you're not, you're not.

In its long history, the knuckleball has only been thrown by a few pitchers during any given era.

The best remembered are Wilbur Wood, Jim Bouton, Phil and Joe Niekro, Tom Candiotti, Charlie Hough. But, though their names are part of baseball's respected pantheon, the pitch that elevated them there is still considered a joke, a ploy, a trick.

As some sportswriters in the film – which is well-paced and thoroughly engaging – attest, the pitch "has always been a distrusted art" and those who toss is "are considered freaks, they're considered fraudulent."

"Nobody grows up wanting to be a knuckleball pitcher. It's born of desperation; it's born of necessity," says Newsday baseball columnist David Lennon.

Even the players agree.

"Most of us would have loved to have done something different," says Hough. "I wanted to play third base."

"We're the oddballs on the team," says Bouton.

Hough adds: "It takes a little nerve in the big leagues to throw a pitch at less than all you've got."

"Knuckleball!" is really a film about finding one's place – in this case in Major League Baseball – and making the most of it. Finding what works for you and perfecting and persevering.

From Wakefield's "allergy to wood," that sank his career as a hitter to Hough's transitioning from his dream at the hot corner to a place on the mound, these are inspiring stories.

None is more inspirational than Dickey's. It's a story he told in his autobiography, "Wherever I Wind Up," published in March.

Dickey was a star player as a kid and dreamed of the big leagues. He won both his starts with the bronze medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in 1996.

He was drafted in 1996 and nearly signed by Doug Melvin's Rangers with an $810,000 bonus before a freak of physiology led the team to rescind its offer. Dickey could have cashed in a million-dollar insurance policy on his arm but it would have meant leaving the game forever. Instead, he kept at it and the Rangers called back and offered him a $75,000 deal.

He took it.

What followed were years spent almost entirely in the minor leagues with Texas, Seattle, Minnesota and the Brewers (he traveled to St. Louis to join the Crew, but never left his hotel before being sent back down). Around 2005, Dickey realized that he needed to do something to survive. He needed to master the knuckleball.

"It's a pitch that's designed to get big league hitters out," he says in the film. "But to the masses it's a circus pitch. It gets mocked, it gets parodied. Everybody thinks they can do it. Every position player on the New York Mets throws a knuckleball to each other and they want you to come over and watch it. You're considered a fluke. I want to combat that because I think that it's a very valid pitch."

And Dickey, who since Wakefield's retirement is the only major leaguer throwing the knuckleball, is proving its validity once again. At the time of writing, Dickey is 18-4 – tied for most wins in the majors – with a 2.64 ERA.

A guy like Dickey is just what the knuckleball needs right now.

"He's really on a mission to prove the legitimacy of the knuckleball," says the New York Daily News' Wayne Coffey.

And when he announced his retirement, Wakefield said, "R.A. Dickey it's your turn to carry the torch for a while."

Dickey, who has been well-served by the knuckleball, feels a responsibility to the pitch that has made him a star.

"Learning the pitch and walking with other men who have thrown the pitch, you can't help but want to do good by it. There is a part of me that hopes I can pitch long enough for the next person to come. Because that's what Tim did."

But Bouton thinks that no matter what, the knuckleball will live on, and it will provide hope to kids who might not have any other chance to get to the mound at Miller Park, Fenway Park, Citi Field or any other major league stadium.

"It's not gonna be extinct, that pitch," he says. "Skinny kids, non athletes, they're gonna be out there playing catch with their fathers to see if they can throw a damn ball that doesn't spin. Because if they can, they have a shot going from nowhere to the big leagues."


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