They have been called frauds and tricksters.
They make their living in a way that's anathema to everyone else in their trade.
They are derided as gimmicky, treated with enmity, and leered at as second-class citizens.
Like many groups who operate on the fringes of society, though, they find comfort with each other. Their esoteric skill has its own language, and they cling to others who speak it.
They are the knuckleballers — masters of pitching's equivalent of a flim-flam.
In a profession that prides itself on power and speed, they employ chance, casting their spinless ball into the elements, putting the ball at the whim of the weather and wind, watching it dance and flit and dart as if bobbled by invisible birds.
These men have harnessed the secret of this devilish pitch, one that baseball poohbahs dismiss in one breath and revere in the next.
These few, these surprisingly happy few, are the subject of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's new documentary Knuckleball! — a title that, perhaps ironically, appends an exclamation point to a pitch that's more of a semicolon.
The film is set for a weeklong run at The Belcourt. It opens Thursday with a sold-out Q&A featuring one of the film's stars, Nashville knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, fresh off his Cy Young Award-winning year with the New York Mets.
Knuckleball! isn't about the pitch as much as it is about the men who throw it. The physics of the knuckler are barely explained. The only time the documentary tries is via kitschy 1970s animation, complete with a smiling baseball dancing its way through the air.
But Knuckleball! isn't a film of how. It's a film of who.
Broadly, the gifted team of Stern and Sundberg (whose diverse credits include Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and the Darfur doc The Devil Came on Horseback) sketch the 2011 seasons of Dickey and the Boston Red Sox's Tim Wakefield. The former is emerging as an ace, the latter seeking his milestone 200th win.
Interspersed with the requisite game footage and behind-the-scenes interviews — including a fascinating brief segment with Dickey explaining how he cares for a crucial part of the knuckleballer's anatomy, his fingernails — are conversations among Dickey, Wakefield and the elder members of the knuckleball fraternity. This collection of characters includes Phil Niekro, Jim Bouton and Charlie Hough, which should give you an idea of the iconoclasts the pitch attracts.
No one sets out to be a knuckleballer. It's a pitch of necessity. One talking cap in the film calls it "a mediocre pitcher's best friend." It's a way to cling on to the edge of the big-league roster. Maybe that's why Dickey worries so about his fingernails.
But once you're tagged as a knuckleballer, Dickey says, the fraternity is welcoming.
"I was scared to death that I was walking into this craft," Dickey told the Scene in a phone conversation this week. "When you don't mentor with somebody, it's hard to succeed. I didn't meet with Charlie Hough until I was four or five months into it. I had to weather into figuring it out on my own. It's funny in that knuckleballers have a whole different vocabulary. There's an instant bond that's created."
The knuckleballers golf and drink and joke. Dickey shares game footage with his mentor Hough. It's not just fraternal — it's out of necessity. Pitching coaches, having not dealt with the knuckler, don't often have insight into how the pitch works. The men who use it must speak with those who came before.
That's where Knuckleball! works best. It avoids the easy trope of baseball films: the sport as Important and a Metaphor for Life. And it succeeds in not getting bogged down in minutiae. There's barely a mention of the sport's addiction to numeracy — except when the knuckleballers themselves joke about how slow they throw in comparison to their compadres.
This human detail makes Knuckleball! the best kind of documentary — a look inside a subculture. It's also a movie about legacy. Immediately after the first scene of the big leaguers sharing secrets with each other — brilliantly filmed in a room with dark furniture and low lighting, hinting that we are being invited into one of those clandestine beer-commercial club meetings — Dickey is shown at a youth baseball camp, preaching the evangel of his mysterious art. With every other pitch, he explains, the idea is to impart as much spin as possible to the horsehide.
Not so the knuckler. It only works when spin is minimized. And when the kids' jaws drop at seeing the ball flit through the air, Dickey smiles.
"I think there's a responsibility I have because of what has been done for me — a 'pay it forward' kind of concept," Dickey says. "If there's someone who has the passion and hunger to learn it, I want to help."
He knows it's an uphill battle. But he won the Cy Young, and he did it in the country's biggest market, his 2012 exploits blasted across ESPN. So maybe a few kids will pull their fingers back and try to float the knuckler.
"When you're a kid and you watched someone do something great, you don't know if you can or can't do it," Dickey says. "Now there's a generation of kids who've seen the documentary or watched me play live. It's at the forefront — people are enamored with it."
Still, there's always a "but" with knuckleballers. A dozen or so have been effective, but they aren't sexy. They have to persevere. Sports in general — and baseball in particular — isn't an industry that takes a lot of chances.
"It's a culture that lacks imagination," Dickey says, rather frankly for someone inside that culture. "Most people come up throwing up hard. No one is looking for Hoyt Wilhelm, but I think it's a good idea to learn the pitch. If I wouldn't have experimented with it and what it does, I would have never gotten it down."
Near the film's end, Wakefield retires. In a tearful speech at Fenway Park, he thanks those old knuckleballers for all their help. And he exhorts Dickey to keep the pitch alive.
"I'm it right now," Dickey says. "You're hopeful an organization will give someone a chance, but it's a difficult thing. I think what you're going to see is that years down the road, there'll be a kid that watched a Mets game throwing it. You'll see it years from now."
And when that kid makes it, the fraternity will be there to welcome him.
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