June 26, 2013

KNUCKLEBALL Chases Away My Stanley Cup Blues

"You've gotta have the fingertips of a safe cracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist."

I am terrible at sports, but it's practically impossible to live in Boston and not be a diehard fan of at least one team.  The Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics have won a staggering seven championships in the last twelve years, which is pretty much unheard of these days.  When I was living in L.A. I could only watch my teams by either A) shelling out big money for all the different league packages (and you couldn't even get baseball unless you had satellite) or B) finding a local bar that would show more than just local games.  And since there are an overwhelming number of ex-pat New Englanders living in Los Angeles, there are a couple of fantastic Boston bars scattered around town, including Little Bar in Hollywood, 4 F's in Hermosa Beach and the infamous Sonny MacLean's in Santa Monica.  I've mentioned this before, but there was nothing more comforting when living on the other side of the country than being able to go to a place full of people with a common ancestry of sorts, and the easiest way to bond with strangers or make new friends is to drink beers and cheer for a team that most of the town ignores and/or disdains.

In that light, Monday night was pretty rough.  The Boston Bruins have had an incredible post-season run, overcoming a daunting late-game deficit in Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, beating back the New York Rangers and then utterly slaying the Eastern Conference's #1 seed, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks proved just as exciting, starting off with an epic triple overtime battle royale in Game 1.  The series lead shifted back and forth each game, and with less than two minutes left to go in Game 6, it looked as if the B's would hold on to send the series back to Chicago for one final showdown.  It was a hot, humid evening in Boston and the ice was a mess, so the puck had been bouncing around the rink in an ugly fashion all night, but the black and gold put forth a gutsy effort all night long.  Then, all of a sudden, Chicago managed to sneak the puck past goaltender Tukka Rask.  Then the unthinkable: seventeen seconds later, they did it again.  And like that, our Stanley Cup dreams were dashed.  It's never fun to see your team get so close and lose, but after the Boston Marathing bombing it seemed as if the entire city had rallied behind the Bruins, hoping for a bit of emotional catharsis in the form of hockey glory.  This loss was therefore particularly painful.

As soon as the game ended, I immediately turned off the television and walked out onto my deck.  I took a deep breath, looked out into the darkened sky, listened to the Blue Line train rumble along the tracks behind my house and the airplanes taking off from nearby Logan Airport, and thought to myself, "Okay.  It's officially baseball season."

After all, the Red Sox are leading the A.L. East by 2.5 games.

And so, to banish my hockey demons I came home from trivia on Tuesday night and put on Knuckleball!, the documentary about the small brotherhood of major league pitchers who specialize in one of the most peculiar pitches in the game.  There have only been a handful of professionals who have ever used this pitch and the film was shot during the 2011 season, following the last season of longtime Red Sox knuckler Tim Wakefield as well as the rise of the Mets' unlikely star R.A. Dickey, currently the only active knuckleballer in Major League Baseball.

Wakefield played for the Red Sox for more than half my life, so I've grown up watching his pitches dance through the air of Fenway Park.  I love the guy, and that last season was dominated by his quest to reach 200 career wins.  (He was also in spitting distance of tying the Red Sox franchise record of 192 wins.)  As it just so happens, I was actually working in the Red Sox IT department during that 2011 season, so I remember it very well.  Since then I've also become familiar with Dickey, a pitcher who bounced from team to team for years and was facing the end of a lackluster pitching career when he made a dramatic shift and became a full-time knuckleball pitcher.  (Wakefield has a similar backstory: he started as a first baseman with the Pirates but moved to the mound when he had trouble hitting with a wooden bat.*)

The methodology and the history of the knuckleball is pretty fascinating.  Pitchers grasp the ball with their fingernails and attempt to throw it with reduced speed and absolutely no spin.  When it works, the ball will drift and dance through the air, leaving batters utterly bewildered and swinging at empty space.  When it doesn't work, the pitch turns into a floating meatball that batters will typically crush into the upperdecks.  After surviving the Bruins' heartbreaking loss, I was none too pleased to see the film linger on Wakefield's 11th inning pitch to Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS that ended Boston's campaign for a World Series victory.  But I loved watching Wakefield and Dickey spending time with former knucklers Charlie Hough and Phil Nierko, playing golf and swapping war stories. Despite playing on different teams and in different eras, they really do see themselves as a fraternity of sorts. When Dickey first started to develop his knuckleball, he reached out to Hough, Nierko and even to Wakefield, who was still an active starter at the time, and they all offered advice and guidance. While they were technically competitors, Wake knew his career was nearing its end and he wanted to ensure that there was someone there to pick up the slow-moving torch when he was gone. The sense of camaraderie and legacy is strong among these men. Over this past off-season they even recruited a couple of former quarterbacks to learn the pitch and get a shot at attending the Arizona Diamondbacks training camp on a reality show for MLB Network. Despite my disdain for reality television, I watched the whole thing because Wake was the judge, one time Red Sox goofball Kevin Millar was the host and former BC and Patriots quarterback Doug Flutie was a contestant. If he had won, I would have instantly scoured the internet in search of a Flutie Diamondbacks jersey.

If you're a fan of Wakefield or Dickey, or even if you're just curious about this crazy, rarely thrown pitch then Knuckleball! is a very endearing 93 minutes full of familiar baseball faces and all the love and drama inherent in America's pastime. And for everyone else still coming to grips with Monday night's hockey game, this movie is a great way to get primed for baseball season. 

Bruins, thanks for an amazing season. 

Go Sox.

*In college ball they use aluminum bats, which are lighter and generally give the batter more power.

Title: Knuckleball!
Director: Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
Starring: Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey, Charlie Hough, Phil Nierko, Tom Candiotti
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

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