Rarely has a pitch spawned an industry, but this year the knuckleball seems to have done so, at least for Mets Cy Young award candidate R.A. Dickey. From best-selling biography to a series of children’s books to memorabilia to a very popular documentary, the quirky pitch and its lone practitioner may never have been hotter, even in the days when Wilbur Wood was baffling American league pitchers for the Chicago White Sox and the Neikro brothers were tormenting the National League.
So did anyone see this coming?
“R.A. had deep belief that his knuckleball was getting better and better every year, and that he would have a strong season in 2012, but I don’t think anybody could’ve fathomed that it would unfold the way it has – a career journeyman on the brink of a 20-victory season and a Cy Young Award,” said New York Daily News writer Wayne Coffey, who co-penned Dickey’s book “Wherever I Wind Up” last spring.
Well what about the pair of female directors who collaborated for the documentary, which debuts this week in select markets and on VOD?
“When we started this project we could never have predicted this incredible 2012 season for RA. We knew he was a very special player and a beloved New York Met and he’d had that incredible game with the Bisons that brought him back to the majors,” said Ricki Stern, the career documentarian who co-directed the film about the elusive pitch with Annie Sundberg. “ The sports writers loved him for his personality and how he stood apart from the typical professional major league pitcher (he was the ballplayer with novels in his bag and in the clubhouse, he quoted poetry, he named his bats per medieval legends), but we didn’t have a sense that his career was about to explode in the way it did this past season.”
Still even with all his quirks and charm, the last knuckleballer in the bigs benefitted from a fortuitous bounce of media coverage in the largest market in the country that coincided with his great success on the field. Rarely do such things…book, media deals, movie…happen in lockstep unless you are of the talent and hype of maybe RGIII. But a journeyman knuckleballer, no way.
The next big boost for both Dickey and knuckleballers past happens this week, when the film actually debuts (Tuesday in Boston, Thursday in New York and then across the country). Heck, even the Mayors of Boston and New York, Menino and Bloomberg, are getting into the act by proclaiming “Knuckleball Day” in two cities who never agree on anything in sports.
For those who don’t know, Stern and Sundberg, whose last project was with Joan Rivers, followed Dickey and Tim Wakefield throughout the 2011 season and then brought the other living knuckleballers together to tell the story of the pitch through the eyes of the pitchers.
Were there any similarities between the legendary female comic actress and the pitchers in the film? “Joan is a professional and just like an athlete when she is not performing, she is practicing, practicing, practicing,” Sundberg said “So in many ways athletes and comedians are cut from the same cloth. They work tirelessly to get better; they are only as good as their last seasons; they perform in live situations to large audiences and learn to duck the occasional drink from a disgruntled fan. There were of course many differences too. Joan is used to being in front of cameras 24/7 and it’s her nature to be honest, sometimes brutally so but she’s extremely honest about herself so she was very exposed to the camera and she trusted us. Our baseball players have learned to speak in sports sound bites so it took a while to get them to feel comfortable in front of documentary cameras, especially Tim who has been with the Red Sox for 17 years. He was used to giving short, upbeat summaries of daily events and he tried not to dwell on a performance or analyze situations too much during the season because he knew he had to get up the next day and play the next game; and RA was more introspective from the beginning. Partly it’s his nature and he was also writing a book at the time so initially he was more comfortable giving us access to himself and his home life. As far as personalities go… we had a great time shooting with Joan, RA, and Tim – great people and great fun.”
The turns of fate were also not lost on Wakefield, who gave much of his own time to balance the film as well. “ Tim Wakefield had his own incredible success – his contribution to the Red Sox’ 2004 and 2007 seasons, becoming an All Star, starting the World Series – and TIm had the luxury of a run of rich years with the same team, years of developing his own mastery of the knuckleball and a relationship with his own catcher (Doug Mirabelli),” Stern added. “We know the knuckleball is a freaky pitch, and in 2011, when RA was given the home opener, he lost control of the pitch because he had a torn finger nail. That’s all it takes for someone like RA to lose his feel and struggle with the pitch. But like RA says about the knuckleball, you never know where it will take you.”
So with “Knuckleball” and one particular knuckleballer, a raging success, will the two director look to raise the profile of a wayward goalie or a quirky kicker? “We’d love to do another sports film – we’re working on a commissioned project for ESPN right now which will be out in 2013 – and we’re always on the look out for a great story,” Stern said. “ Sports films have their own drama through the competition, through the challenges any athlete faces in gearing up for the competition, and when you find the right character to take you on that journey, it’s a no brainer. For a while we were exploring some of the amazing stories of the vets who were preparing to compete in the Olympics as Para athletes, but we had our hands full following Tim and RA over 2011. There’s also something really satisfying in capturing the visual aspects of a sports film – the dynamism, the grace of the athletes – we’d love to do it again.”
For now, visions of large DVD sales will dance in the minds of all involved, and if Cy Young does come calling, maybe a whole line of knuckleball products… custom emory boards, files, even a signature Whiffle Ball…may be in the offing.
A quirky but good reward for a rare breed of pitcher, and for those who took the time to tell their stories.