April 11, 2016

"A GOOD DAY AGAINST NOLAN IS 0-4 AND DON'T GET HIT IN THE HEAD":

Film Review: 'Fastball' (Nick Schager, MARCH 24, 2016, Variety)

A baseball documentary for old-timers and young analytics acolytes alike, "Fastball" sets out, as its nominal goal, to deduce who threw history's all-time fastest pitch. That intention, however, is merely the pretext for an alternately mythologizing and scientific inquiry into the art of pitching -- a seemingly simple act that, over the course of baseball's century-plus lifespan, has taken on legendary status. That's especially true of those blessed with velocity at which to marvel -- not always easy an easy task, at least for those ensconced in the batter's box. With an all-star lineup of hall-of-famers waxing nostalgic and poetic about their time on the diamond, writer-director Jonathan Hock's documentary has a thrilling pop that should help it strike a competitive chord with anyone even remotely enchanted by our national pastime.

Narrated by Kevin Costner in a reverent "Field of Dreams"-style tone, Hock's film divides itself into chapters, each of them focused on a famed fastballer, beginning with Rich "Goose" Gossage, the handlebar-mustached flamethrower whose enormous size and nasty attitude enhanced his ability to intimidate batters. Throughout "Fastball," a pitcher's physicality and demeanor are presented as equally key components of his fearsomeness, as was also true of St. Louis Cardinals great Bob Gibson. A towering African-American, Gibson derived his power from anger born from a lifetime of enduring racism, and scared opponents silly simply by squinting intensely at his catcher -- a move that, he admits, was actually necessitated by his poor eyesight. [...]

In a roundtable chat between Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, George Brett, Al Kaline and the late Tony Gwynn, as well as in interviews with Hank Aaron, Derek Jeter, Wade Boggs, Bryce Harper and others, illustrious hitters make their picks for the fastest-throwing pitcher they ever encountered (no surprise that Sandy Koufax figures prominently in those discussions), and their anecdotes help steep the film in a lived-in sense of tradition. At the same time, however, Hock bolsters those legends' accounts through scientific scrutiny, with physicists explaining the neuromechanical process required to hit a ball travelling at literal blink-and-you'll-miss-it speeds, dispelling players' commonly held belief that the greatest fastballs "rise" as they approach the plate -- an effect born from the way batters visually perceive the ball -- and synchronizing speed tests from different eras in order to identify the sport's greatest flamethrower.

That investigation inevitably leads to Nolan Ryan, whose 27-year career with the New York Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers was marked by an astonishing seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts. Ryan's hard-throwing style is rightfully celebrated as being all the more remarkable because of his durability, with the pitcher only finally calling it quits when his elbow gave out, mid-game, at the age of 46. 




Posted by at April 11, 2016 5:27 AM

  

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