'Knuckleball!' could inspire next generation of pitchers
Film documents 2011 season of pitchers R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield
NEW YORK -- Knuckleball pitchers have had a lonely existence over the years, but R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield predicted that things are about to change.
They joined Hall of Famer Phil Niekro on Thursday as part of a media tour to promote the new film "Knuckleball!" that has opened to positive reviews this week in select theaters and on fast-selling video on demand, and between all this buzz and the 18-win season that Dickey is enjoying for the Mets, they believe the message will reach a new generation.
"I do not think the pitch gets enough respect," Dickey said. "It's a very viable pitch for a big league pitcher. It can offer an organization a multitude of different things. The focus that organizations have, the imagination to be able to really cultivate the pitch within their organization, it's a very important thing to do. It doesn't have the reputation as being dependable. We try to change our careers, I'm currently trying to change, and so hopefully you'll see a new generation of knuckleballers upcoming."
"It's a strong brotherhood of knuckleballers, and we're very proud of this guy right here of carrying the torch and having the year he is having," Wakefield said as he sat next to Dickey. "He's bringing some authenticity to the pitch itself. I couldn't be more proud of him. ... Like Jim Bouton says in the film, the skinny kids, the non-athletic kids who can't throw 95-100 mph, this brings hope that they can live out their dream of wearing the big league uniform one day if they learn the knuckleball."
Co-directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, "Knuckleball!" goes deep inside the 2011 season of Wakefield and Dickey, and presents a new and sometimes-mesmerizing 3,000-frames-per-second -- view of a fickle pitch that has prolonged their careers and baffled the best hitters.
"We're getting a great reaction to the film," Wakefield said. "It's the No. 2 most sold documentary on iTunes right now, one behind Katy Perry, so hopefully we can pass her today. But that's gonna be a tough one, because I know my little girl loves Katy Perry a little bit too much."
Dickey said being a knuckleballer today is a "lonely" existence.
Seeing the knuckleball become such a 2012 star has been beyond anyone's expectations.
"My hope is that this documentary and the season that I'm having hopefully will spawn a new generation of kids who want to take up the pitch, and at the very least see it as a chance," Dickey said. "That's what is so neat about the pitch -- it offers a chance. ... That's what this pitch has meant for all of us, really -- a chance to chase the big league dream."
While he hopes the result will be more knuckleballers, Dickey said the film's real message reaches far beyond baseball, to overcoming anything in life.
"I think the common denominator among all of humanity, really, is that at some point we're all going to experience adversity in some way," he said. "To see people be able to use maybe some of that adversity as a positive is a great message, not just for baseball players, but for everybody in general. That's what happens in the documentary. It echoes out of the narrative. If you've got a dream and you work hard, you can achieve it."
What has been the reaction of other players so far?
"I've got a lot of curious teammates," Dickey said. "They show part of the trailer on the big screen at Citi Field and everyone wants to know about it, so I encourage them to go pick it up on iTunes or VOD. It's exciting to get to share that with some of your teammates. For the most part, people are for you."
Wakefield said the cinematography in this film is "fantastic. It's slowed down with one of those phantom cameras that take a picture at 3,000 frames per second. It was really cool for all of us in the film to actually sit back and watch how it unfolds at that slow speed.
"The girls did a fantastic job with this film and I hope everybody enjoys it."
"The girls" have made a singular stamp indeed, and the early word is that females in general have taken an especially strong interest in the film. Stern and Sundberg said persistence was a big requirement in bringing the project to fruition.
"It was really fun to spend a whole season following these guys, but it was tough, because they're on the road so much," Stern said. "They're in hotels, they're exhausted. We would have to sort of wheedle our way in and say, 'Can we just come by for an hour and follow up with you?' They were incredibly generous amidst trying to do their job."
"What's great now, at the end of the road, you feel like we have a friendship with these guys," Sundberg said. "The best thing for us was probably the golf weekend."
Wakefield said that was the "coolest" part of the experience.
"Just getting together with Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro in Atlanta at a little golf outing, and be able to sit in a room, the four of us, and just tell stories and ask questions," said Wakefield, who left the game with 200 wins. "I'm still intrigued at how Phil Niekro was using his time as a knuckleballer, and who the hardest batter was to face for Charlie Hough and myself."
The concept for "Knuckleball!" began with producer Chris Schomer, who grew up a baseball fan outisde of Providence, R.I., in Red Sox Nation. She had been "noodling this idea for a while," Sundberg said, and that was the inspiration.
"Personally, I was hoping that Tim Wakefield would still be playing this year, but just the fact that R.A. has had such an incredible, incredible run, and has really brought the knuckleball -- and not only his own personality -- to the fore, who could have hoped for such a remarkable event?" Sundberg said.
It has been quite a ride for Dickey in 2012, from climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro to the success of his own autobiography to the All-Star Game to his National League Cy Young Award candidacy and now this film.
"You know, I haven't had a lot of time to really reflect on it because it has been so busy," Dickey said. "I've tried to enjoy it as much as possible without losing sight of the goal. I've still got work to do. I still have three more starts and a chance at achieving some goals that we don't often get to achieve.
"My hope is that I am able to live the next five minutes well over and over again, and at the end of the day, the stats speak for themselves."