Just in time for MLB's opening-day festivities (April 4 for the Tribe), a documentary about baseball's most mythologized pitch — Fastball — opens Friday for a limited engagement at the Cedar Lee.
It's a movie which celebrates some of the sport's biggest arms —Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, Goose Gossage, Bob Gibson, Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel — all while trying to answer the popular question: Who threw the fastest pitch ever? Fastball is a must-see for baseball lovers and sports physiology nerds alike.
The film is foremost a history, a catalog of baseball's most dominant starters and relievers: the stories of their scoutings, the particulars of their mechanics and personas on the mound, the garish agglomerations of records. With narration from Kevin Costner and interviews with current and former MLB greats (George Brett, Derek Jeter and Justin Verlander, to name a few), the film summarizes and adds to the legend of the fastball.
A magnificent and rarified legend indeed: Unlike in track, we're told, where high schoolers now routinely eclipse record speeds set by Jesse Owens and sprinters from bygone eras, in baseball the speed of the fastball has remained roughly constant from generation to generation. The human body has not yet disclosed a superior method for hurling a baseball at a point 60 feet and 6 inches away.
For some, it's been a tough pitch to master. Perhaps the film's most interesting character is Steve Dalkowski, considered by many to be the hardest throwing pitcher who ever lived. On- and off-field control problems and a devastating injury meant Dalkowski never got a chance to make it to the Big Show, but his potential was extraordinary. He is interviewed in Fastball as an older man, and he's a tragic figure — ravaged by both alcohol and crushed dreams.
More than anything, the movie builds excitement about baseball, increasingly the forgotten runt in the litter of America's major big-money sports. Fastball is not unlike a well-executed ESPN 30 for 30 doc in that way, crisply made and (sure to be) emotionally received. It's got ample slo-mo, bounteous clips from historic pitching outings, including newly remastered footage from Sandy Koufax's perfect game in 1965, and constant references to the transcendent, almost primal, nature of the sport.
"It's a man with a stick versus a man with a rock," Costner intones early on. The content of the interviews themselves and the skillful editing builds incredible drama around the pitcher/batter relationship.
Scientists have their say too. Both physicists and neurologists from Carnegie-Mellon offer their two-cents about the limits of physical and neurological performance, vis-a-vis the at-bat. The average synaptic connection takes two milliseconds, for instance, so the extra 396 milliseconds that a batter has to react to a 92-mph fastball (vs. a 100-mph fastball) is crucial. Another recurring talking head helpfully compares the various methods that have been used to measure pitch speed through the years.
It is, finally, a small-scale, laser-focused piece of sports cinema. And it will no doubt appeal to a small-scale, laser-focused audience segment (baseball fans or children of baseball fans) that ought to be interested in the movie on the eve of another MLB season in an era of spectacular pitching. Indians' ace Corey Kluber, sadly, makes no appearance.