Knuckleball!, the feature documentary that premiered April 21 at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival, former Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield sums up his long career with an accidental metaphor: "It's been the good with the bad, the twists with the turns, the up and the down." He pauses, then adds, "That's what my pitch does." The same could be said of the roster of films at this year's Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, the festival-within-a-festival that served up a decidedly mixed bag of documentaries.
Tipping off the 10-day affair, now in its sixth year, was Benji, something to file under Stories Every Sports Fan Should Know. Ben (Benji) Wilson was a 17-year-old basketball phenom at Chicago's Simeon Vocational High and the No. 1 recruit in the country when he was murdered in 1984. Directed by the duo of mononyms Coodie and Chike, best known for their hip-hop videos, the film is a stirring account of the last years of Wilson's short life. It also shows how the memory of number 25 lives on (as on the high school jersey of more recent Simeon alum Derrick Rose). Town of Runners heads around the globe to Bekoji, Ethiopia, a rural town that has produced half a dozen Olympic distance runners. With striking camera work, it tells the story of two teenage girls who dream of Olympic glory. Broke, which director Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys) screened despite its being just 70% complete, was inspired by SI's 2009 story How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke. The work in progress is nearly all talking heads and newspaper headlines. (The finished product will air this fall on ESPN.) And On the Mat, which follows one season of the Lake Stevens (Wash.) High wrestling team, relies heavily on the expository skills of teenage boys, revealing precious little.
But it's the story about the ball that doesn't spin that resonated most with viewers, who voted it one of the top 10 documentaries of the entire festival. Knuckleball! starts before the 2011 season, when Wakefield and the Mets' R.A. Dickey were the only two knuckleballers in the majors. Luckily for filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (best known for their 2007 documentary, The Devil Came on Horseback, about the Darfur genocide), last year would be a defining one for both pitchers. Wakefield, then 44, faced the pressure of nearing his 200th career win and a Boston fan base calling for his retirement. In contrast, Dickey, 36, would sign his first guaranteed contract (two years, $7.8 million) after 14 seasons in major and minor league purgatory.
Knuckleball! shows what it means to be a pitcher whose success rests as much on the health of his fingernails as on his arm, and whose talents will forever draw skepticism. When Wakefield and Dickey go on a golf outing with two mentors—knuckleballers of yore Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough—we get a peek into their tiny fraternity of baseball outsiders. Moments revealing the players' struggles against doubt will touch viewers whether or not they're sports fans—and elevate Knuckleball! from compelling sports documentary to great movie experience.