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by Jay Seaver

"Not a bad watch while waiting for next year."
3 stars

The professional sports industry churns out a tremendous amount of non-fiction films every year, and the number is probably only going up with the sheer number of cable sports channels with time to fill, especially during the off-season. It's not uncommon for greatness to come out of this factory - the larger-than-life personalities and strong passions can create terrific stories that reflect ideas beyond the games themselves - but more often you get something like "Fastball": Competently-produced and an easy watch for fans, it will probably fill a lot of hours on the MLB Network during the winter but it doesn't transcend its title.

Heck, the viewer won't even learn the mechanics of supplying power to a fastball or controlling it via the release; This film is almost entirely a celebration of the let-'er-rip, blow-the-batter-away pitch and pitcher, with a particular emphasis on determining who, among major leaguers, was the hardest thrower ever. As a result, it's not exactly dry, but there is very little opportunity to learn here: You can spend a segment or two talking about Nolan Ryan's feats on a pitching mound, but director Jonathan Hock can't do much more than stand back and be amazed; there's no talk about what made him different from so many other hurlers, even to the point of <i>acknowledging</I> that, to throw as many pitches as hard as he did for as long as he did, he had to be a freak of nature.

Don't expect much mention that he walked enough people that his reputation is fairly inflated, either; Hock spends much of the film content to repeat familiar lore that much of his audience is likely very familiar with, even seeming to offer only token resistance to the claim that pitches can rise on the way to the plate. That makes things go down easier, for sure, but the film gets more interesting when Hock digs into things that are somewhat lesser-known - the story of Steve Dalkowski, a fireballer who could never control his pitches enough to make that speed useful, or how a good fastball can fool the brain because it's right at the edge of what the human eye can see and how the brain extrapolates motion. The mechanics of how pitch speeds have been measured are nifty and potentially new information for many viewers as well.

Even when the film is mostly repeating things the audience already knows, fans should often enjoy it because it's coming from an impressive line-up of current and former players, whether a panel including Hall-of-Famers George Brett, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Al Kaline, and Tony Gwynn or someone younger like current Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander. Verlander's got a nifty combination of jockish confidence and open-mindedness, as does Mike Schmidt, but the whole group is generally easy to listen to.

Hock knows his medium and audience, breaking the sub-ninety-minute movie up into sixteen chapters, which should make it easy to insert commercials as need be without ruining the flow of it, and it also keeps Hock from diving in so deep on something that it becomes mere minutiae. You can over-dissect this sort of thing quite easily, after all. He also does a fairly nice job of tying things together in the end - there's not a great point to be made with this material, but there's a conclusion.

"Fastball" isn't a transcendent sports documentary; it's an hour and a half baseball material with pleasant Kevin Costner narration that will be welcome in those awful months between the end of the World Series and the start of Spring Training. Fans will appreciate that, and it at the very least keeps some filmmakers working until they have a great sports story to tell.

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originally posted: 10/16/15 03:29:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jonathan Hock

Written by
  Jonathan Hock


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