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'Knuckleball' a moving take on 'circus' pitch

'Knuckleball' a moving take on 'circus' pitch

'Knuckleball' a moving take on 'circus' pitch
NEW YORK -- The credits rolled, and the house lights eliminated the contrast between the screen and the rest of the room. No more than a New York minute had passed when I told myself I had been entertained. And that's what it's about, right? A drive into the city, fighting the traffic of the streets as well as the more menacing traffic of the sidewalks had been made worthwhile by a movie. "Knuckleball" was good and fun, worth the time dodging cabs and the peculiar folks who make the Big Apple what it is.

In that regard, the baseball movie screening I watched last week in Manhattan was an escape. Blue sky and green grass, crisp white uniforms and a Green Monster, not to mention the Braves' blue of Phil Niekro, the Saux's red of Tim Wakefield and the Mets' orange of R.A. Dickey. Isn't that what we call cinematography?

Baseball is an escape too -- or at least it ought to be. Some of the footage of "Knuckeball" suggests as much. Wakefield against a cloudless sky prompted thoughts of Randolph Scott, sitting tall in the saddle. Dickey in a rural setting could have been Robert Duvall in "Open Range." If "Knuckleball" were a book and this were a book report, I would say I liked the pictures. It's a handsome effort.

Until HBO presented "Deadwood" in realistic shades of brown, I found most westerns uplifting; they fostered a sense of wholesomeness in me. Cheyenne Bodie and Lucas McCain stood for good, the Lone Ranger shot to disarm not to maim and Hugh O'Brien's Wyatt Earp always dressed as sharp as Vada Pinson. The good guys won. They also shaved, showered, shampooed and shined -- unreal as all that primping was.

Baseball is uplifting to me, even when the best team doesn't win. And it has showers for all players, not only dismissed pitchers.

So it was an escape for 90 minutes Thursday evening. Baseball, brightly projected on the big screen, some of it shot from unusual angles, held my attention as much as what was said by the men who have used the knuckleball to find success at the big league level.

"Knuckleball" won't compete with "The Natural" or "Field of Dreams." Documentary versus fiction isn't a fair fight. PBS on a cold Saturday night in early February is a likely destination for the movie that opens Sept. 20 at the IFC Center in Manhattan. Think of the effect it would have after the snow has turned to filthy slush and "pitchers and catchers" has yet to happen.

It worked even on an evening when we'd become immersed in perfect games, heroic rookies and Dickey's remarkable command for 4 1/2 months. If baseball is what makes you pick up the paper or click a few dozen times each morning, you'll find "Knuckleball" enjoyable.

Unlike the pitch itself, the movie doesn't move to unexpected places. It focuses mostly on Wakefield and Dickey -- their families are included. Niekro, Charlie Hough and Jim Bouton have supporting roles, and Wilbur Wood and Tom Candiotti make cameos. And Jason Varitek, Wakefield's occasional catcher, was given time for his two cents.

Nor does "Knuckleball" break new ground. I would have appreciated a few more game anecdotes to broaden the focus.

A favorite: Casey Stengel pulled Mickey Mantle from a game in August 1960 because Mantle, thinking a force play at second base had ended the inning, didn't run to first base on a double-play ground ball. The following night, Mantle, embarrassed by his faux pas, hit a foul pop against Hoyt Wilhelm that Orioles catcher Gus Triandos dropped because he was using the oversized mitt designed to reduce the number of passed balls and wild pitches associated with the knuckleball. Mantle hit the next pitch for an eighth-inning, two-run game-winner.

Another: Dave Racaniello, the Mets' bullpen catcher, was struck on the side of his head warming up Dickey early this season. Just how much can a ball move?

And the Hofstra University softball pitcher, Olivia Galati, aka Ms. Butterfly, would have bent the gender of the movie. Her underhand knuckleball is remarkable.

Then again, "Knuckleball" covers the 2011 season. It was on target for Wakefield and his quest for his 200th career victory, but it also was one year too early to capture Galati's excellence, all that Dickey has accomplished this summer and how he is a strong candidate to win the National League Cy Young Award.

His candidacy is in no way addressed, but in the movie, he does refer to the generic knuckleball as "a circus" pitch, implying that the masses don't take it seriously. It may be more difficult for him to overcome the prejudice against his knuckler than to overcome the candidacies of conventional pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Johnny Cueto. If a theme exists in "Knuckleball," it is that no one trusts the pitch that doesn't spin.

"They say you don't want to have a knuckleballer pitching for you or against you," Tommy Lasorda once said.

But the movie points out that Dickey often uses the word authentic. Dickey's success is that; so too is "Knuckleball."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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