MINNEAPOLIS - You might not remember Jim Leyland referring to Tim Wakefield as the Elvis Presley of the National League but it happened. It was 1992 and Wakefield burst onto the scene with his newly found knuckleball pitch.
He helped the Pirates to a strong run in that season’s National League Championship Series against Atlanta and then fell apart during the following 1993 campaign. He was released from the Pirates as he had not yet perfected his knuckle pitch. Six days later the Red Sox signed him and the rest was history.
But for Wakefield, the history didn’t come easy. It didn’t flow naturally for Phil Niekro, for Charlie Huff, for R.A. Dickey. The ability to pitch consistently in the big leagues with a knuckleball has proven to be a testament of the most hardest will and an everlasting quest to be proficient and normal when the chosen few to throw the most wicked and wild pitch in anyone’s arsenal are anything but ordinary.
This tale of the undervalued pursuit and journey of the few men who have been known to harness their inner knuckle is displayed brilliantly in the new film “Knuckleball,” which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and was played for a group of baseball enthusiasts at this year’s Society of American Baseball Research Conference Thursday evening.
Like Wakefield, who resorted to pitching after the Pirates said he wouldn’t be a first or third baseman, Dickey turned to the knuckleball after his regular pitches and standard ways on the mound weren’t enough. The film largely follows Wakefield and Dickey during their 2011 campaigns.
Wakefield pitched his 19th and final season in the majors in 2011, earning career win No. 200, while Dickey is just breaking into his own groove and earning credibility with his knuckleball. This season, of course, Dickey is on another level completely having thrown two one-hitters and sporting an 11-1 record heading into the all-star break where he should be tapped as the starting pitcher to represent the National League at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City on July 10.
The relationship between Dickey, Wakefield, Niekro and Huff was captured and proved to be some of the best footage in the film. The four of them sitting on a couch in one instance and playing golf in another was interesting and linked decades of some of the greatest names and arms to ever dance on the diamond together.
Documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg hit a home run with this film, which is set to be officially released sometime before the fall. Two knuckles up!
Other notes from SABR42
- On Wednesday, Twins President David St. Peter made the opening remarks for SABR 42. St. Peter has been with Minnesota since 1990 and in his current position since 2009.
- Among the dozens of research presentations made were a number of interesting topics, including one about the untold story of the 1934 All American tour of Asia by Robert K. Fitts, the founder of the SABR Asian Baseball Research Committee. Considered one of the great barnstorming tours in baseball history, more than half-million fans across Japan, China, the Philippines and Hawaii gathered to watch a team with players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, among others.
- The official scorers panel was a big draw. Attendees listened to Stew Thornley, Dave Vincent and Gregg Wong, notable baseball figures with SABR from the Minnesota area, talk about rules and scoring issues that come up in baseball.
- James Dukett, a chemist from upstate New York, gave a presentation on a new proposal to determine home field advantage in the World Series, which examined the benefit of allowing the highest aggregate winning percentage of the playoff-bound teams, relative to each league, to determine home field.
Stay tuned for more coverage from #SABR42 throughout Friday and the weekend.
-Chris R. Vaccaro