One of the opening weekend highlights of the ongoing TriBeCa Film Festival in New York was Saturday’s outdoor screening of the new documentary Knuckleball!, which tells the stories of (to date) the last two professional pitchers to use the dancing, dazzling knuckleball as their primary weapon, Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey. 

What made the evening special was a clinic that the two hurlers, along with famed practitioners Charlie Hough and Jim Bouton, conducted for kids just steps from the film seating at the World Financial Center.

The knuckleball is a “pitch born of desperation,” or so said all four of the pitchers prior to the screening, though not in so many words.  That may be true, but the long careers enjoyed by Wakefield, Dickey, Hough, Phil Niekro, Wilbur Wood, Hoyt Wilhelm and other knuckleballers attest to the value of harnessing this tantalizing pitch, even when it can’t really be harnessed.

“No one is getting drafted as a knuckleballer,” said Dickey (a first-round pick of the Rangers as a fireballer in 1996), whose tribulations started almost immediately when a special test indicated a missing ligament in his throwing arm.  If ever a first-round pick could become an immediate underdog, here it was.  A few years of struggles at the big league level led, almost accidentally, to a shift from the hand to the fingernails.

“It’s a dying art that needs to be emphasized,” said Wakefield of the pitch that is now thrown only by Dickey among pitchers at all levels of organized ball.  “The filmmakers did a fantastic job in capturing what the pitch can do and how it affected our lives.”

Wakefield was switched from a first baseman to knuckleball pitcher, the “desperation” coming in the form of the alternative, which was his release from the Pirates.  After taking Pittsburgh by storm as a rookie, the ball stopped dancing his way, leading to his departure a year after making the All-Star team.  Boston picked him up, with Phil and Joe Niekro on board as instructors, and the rest is history.

Knuckleball! delves into these parallel careers, and through a brief sit-down with Dickey, Wakefield, Phil Niekro and Hough, gets into some of the psychology of throwing the pitch and what it took for these quite similar personalities to excel at it.

The directors will host a special screening at Independent Film Festival in Boston on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre,

The film could probably use more of these all-time greats, but the Dickey and Wakefield stories are compelling, and the access granted last summer gives fans a look inside their clubhouses and living rooms, but more importantly, inside their heads.

Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.

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