Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg met a few curveballs as they tracked a roller coaster year in the lives of MLB knuckleballers R.A. Dickey (New York Mets) and Tim Wakefield (Boston Red Sox). “Knuckleball!” opens in theaters and on VOD this week.
Note: This article was originally published as oart of our coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Knuckleball! opens this week in select cities and premieres on VOD 9/18.
Tribeca: Tell us a little about Knuckleball! How do you describe the movie in your own words?
Ricki Stern: Our society today is obsessed with youth, speed, and power, and the knuckleball is a pitch that doesn’t require strength or power. It requires craftsmanship and patience, and it gets better over time, and it gets better with age, so it allows players to age into baseball.
Knuckleball! looks at how this pitch is a symbol for where we are today in our lives. By focusing on Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey—the only knuckleballers playing in Major League Baseball—through the 2011 season, and the small fraternity of men who have thrown the pitch over the years, we appreciate how the knuckleball embodies this somewhat nostalgic sense of hard work and patience and perseverance. And these guys’ personal stories are really about doing what it takes to stay in the major leagues. They are survivor stories.
Annie Sundberg: Knuckleball! is a love letter to baseball, seen through this particularly quirky, magical pitch that doesn’t do what anyone ever expects it to do. It’s also a film that really looks at this fraternity of men, some of whom have embraced this pitch because it was their only chance, or their second chance, or their last hope to stay in the game, because they weren’t quite good enough as a position player or a power hitter or a fastball pitcher. They had one last chance to pick something up that would keep them viable. Each pitcher talks in certain ways about coming to peace with the pitch—making a full commitment to something that is incredibly fickle and very difficult to master.
As we cut the film, we realized there are so many themes that are relevant to today’s economy, and what people are feeling as they are reinventing their own lives, trying to take a sense of pride in doing things a little bit differently, not necessarily always getting the expected outcomes, and finding some peace with that.
Tribeca: Iknew about the knuckleball, but I had no idea it was so rare. Have you always been fans of baseball? How did you get started?
Ricki Stern: We had looked at certain sports stories that we were interested in pursuing, and when Dan Cogan and Chris Schomer, the producers who worked on the treatment, came to us with this idea, I was at home with my family. When I mentioned the idea of traveling around with Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox, my kids picked up apples and started knuckleballing in my kitchen. There was so much enthusiasm for the players who throw this quirky pitch that is just so atypical when you look at baseball today—it’s usually all about the radar gun.
These guys are outliers in society: they have to constantly prove themselves because baseball is a numbers game, and everyone is evaluated daily on how many balls you pitched, how many strikes, how many walks… And we thought it would be a fascinating journey to take, especially this past year, because it was potentially—and turned out to be—Tim Wakefield’s last year, after pitching 17 years for the Red Sox. And it became R.A. Dickey’s—of the Mets—first experience as a signed major league baseball player with a multiyear contract.
Tribeca: Even though he was how old?
Ricki Stern: He turned 37 during last year’s season.
Annie Sundberg: What also appealed to us about this particular story is that it wasn’t a typical sports film, in that it’s a little trickier—it’s not about a straight-up competition or a single athlete profile—it’s a mix of everything: the history of the game, the history of this pitch, the bonds of brotherhood between the handful of men who have done this over the years. And then Tim Wakefield had his personal goal of a certain number of career wins. We ended up along for a really incredible ride.
Tribeca: It really feels like seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, since the outcomes of the games and the season really affected your film. It also feels like breaking news—you include Tim Wakefield’s retirement, which was only in February!
Annie Sundberg: Yes, and in fact, we were at spring training in March, shooting the final scenes of the film.
Tribeca: I loved this quote from Jim Bouton: “You need the fingertips of a safecracker, and the mind of a Zen Buddhist.” It really says it all. It’s really the only position where a broken fingernail can make all the difference.
Annie Sundberg: Jim’s other excellent quote is that pitching the knuckleball is like “trying to throw a butterfly into your neighbor’s mailbox.” He wrote the scandalous bestseller Ball Four, which everyone of a certain age secretly read at night under the covers because the baseball world vilified him for spilling MLB secrets. He’s got a lot of great stories.
Tribeca: How did you connect with Wakefield and Dickey?
Ricki Stern: It was one of those things where you get a phone call on a Monday and you have to go to spring training on Friday. Annie and I met with R.A. and just fell for him. He’s such an honest person, and he really connects with you, and with the camera. We just shot an interview with him right away. The other producers went to meet with Tim and get him on board. We came back from that weekend, and it was like, one day you’re thinking, should I go for a swim? And you put your toe in, and suddenly you’re in and you’re swimming, and you’re like, how did I get so wet? How did this happen so quickly? We just had to jump on it if we were going to do it.
Then we just started traveling with them. A lot of the interviews were shot in hotel rooms because they were traveling 162 days, so we just had to follow where their schedules went.
Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?
Ricki Stern: There is a certain rhythm to baseball, where the season itself has its own life. And there are moments that are meaningful to us, having gone on the journey with them, where you have a real appreciation for what they are doing.
We went with four of the knuckleballers—Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, R.A. and Tim—on a golf weekend. It was just riveting to sit and hear them really bond and reminisce; they email and text and run into each other, but with the four of them together in the room, you felt the palpable, unique thing that they share. They know what it’s like to be the only guy out there who throws this bizarrely different kind of a pitch, and how it impacts the catchers, the batters, the fans, the managers, the umpires. Their experiences feel so unique to each of them, yet they are so shared, so collective, that when one person would tell a story, the others would nod their heads in unison. You realize it really is this unique experience—of surviving, against all odds.
Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers who want to make documentaries? Is there one particular thing you learned on Knuckleball! that you didn’t know before?
Ricki Stern: This one was particularly challenging, because you have two unfolding narrative stories, and you have the history of these Hall of Fame players, and you have the more symbolic understanding of what the pitch means in the universal world of baseball. So it was really balancing all those elements, and making sure you were covering them all in a storytelling kind of way, while you’re following two guys who are traveling practically every single day of the year.
Annie Sundberg: I think it’s always the lesson of any documentary film that you feel cursed by the anxiety of missing something. Ricki, you said it a lot when you were traveling around with Joan [Rivers]: if you weren’t there, it didn’t happen. You have to sort of give yourself peace that, if you miss something? Eh—whatever. Try to stay true to your themes, focus on what you’re shooting, because you’re never going to catch it all.
Ricki Stern: I always said it was like when your babysitter tells you your kid took his first step, and you’re like, no, he didn’t. Unless I see it, it didn’t happen.
I’d also like to add a nod to our editor Pax Wassermann, who came on the film in August. For emerging filmmakers, it's always helpful to bring on an editor before you complete shooting. Pax had fresh eyes on the material and was instrumental in helping us shape the film and work towards our final shoots.
Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from your film? Is there a lesson parents can share with their kids?
Annie Sundberg: The thing that I really love about everyone we’ve met along this process, the older pitchers and the current pitchers—each one of them is committed to doing something wholeheartedly. And they have also chosen a path that may not have given them the immediate fame and big money rewards, but this path ultimately gave them the satisfaction of being able to stay in the game longer than anyone else. It’s a tribute to tenacity, to honesty, to commitment, and to having the faith to things differently, knowing that if they do it well enough, it will be rewarded long-term.
Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg are the Emmy-nominated co-directors of The Devil Came on Horseback and The Trials of Darryl Hunt, for which they received the duPont-Columbia Award and prizes at more than 30 festivals. Their most recent films are The End of America, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, and Burma Soldier.