I'm giving a strong recommendation to the 2012 documentary, Knuckleball, directed by Annie Sundberg and Rick Stern. Anyone who is even minimally a fan of baseball will surely enjoy this film about the knuckleball pitch and the tiny confraternity of men who've made their professional careers throwing the knuckleball.
I imagine that anyone who understands the basics of the game, even if not a fan, would also enjoy this documentary. I watched it with a non-fan who was hooked at the outset by some arresting visuals in the opening minutes of the film.
A little background. A knuckleball is thrown much more slowly than conventional pitches. And unlike other pitches that rotate while traveling to the plate, the knuckleball floats without spinning, leading to unpredictable movements due to friction across the seams of the ball and the effects of air currents. Because the knuckleball travels so slowly, it looks like a meatball to a power hitter. But the movement of a knuckleball is so unpredictable that batters often swing and miss in extremely embarrassing fashion as they lose their balance trying to adjust their swing in reaction to some last moment jumping of the ball. Even catchers who routinely catch curves, sliders and fastballs in the 90s can miss a 65mph floater as if they were dealing with a crazy optical illusion.
But the knuckleball doesn't only bedevil hitters and catchers. When the pitch isn't working, it really does turn into a floating meatball and the knuckleball pitcher ends up getting shelled as hitters tee up and crush the ball. So in the knuckleball world, there is humiliation enough to go around, but it's the pitchers themselves who suffer the most, which gets to the heart of the story told in the film.
As professional athletes go, these pitchers are typically oddballs. They may not be physically imposing and they may not even be talented athletes, but they've mastered, as much as possible, this single, crazy pitch that can make monkeys out of superstar athletes who oppose them. The problem is that throwing the knuckleball consistently is so difficult that knuckleball pitchers can go from hero to goat back to hero and back to goat more times in a career than any other professional athlete. Consequently, knuckleball pitchers constantly struggle with professional instability and confidence problems.
Managers don't know how long to stick with a knuckleballer when he's in a slump. General managers may not know if they're releasing a player whose career is over or just beginning. On the upside, knuckleball pitchers can have their best years begin in their middle to late thirties, when other athletes are winding their careers down. That's because they don't throw hard and wreck their arms. And while other pitchers depend on velocity that can't be sustained as they age, the knuckleball pitcher can still come up with enough speed to throw effectively. Some knuckleballers pitch well into their 40s, looking like out-of-shape old men as they clean their young opponents' clocks.
Until recently, two knuckleball pitchers were active in the game. As of 2012, there was only one out of hundreds of pitchers in all of major league baseball. There are perhaps less than ten or fifteen living knuckleballers among thousands of retired players.
Only fellow knuckleball pitchers really understand the emotional challenges faced by their knuckleball brethren, so these men tend to form supportive friendships that can cross both team and generational boundaries. These men also come across as quite likable fellows. The nature of their place in baseball all but rules out the possibility of an arrogant jock mentality.
Lots of credit to directors Sundberg and Stern who made an informative, entertaining and, at times, moving film about men who throw balls for a living.