Fastball

'Fastball' Dials Up Heat on the Big Screen

Washington Senators fireballer Walter "The Big Train" Johnson struck out 3,509 batters in a 21-year Major League career that spanned from 1907-27. He summed up his prowess on the pitchers' mound succinctly: "You can't hit what you can't see."

The new documentary, "Fastball," which premiers Monday night at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, proves Johnson was more right than he ever could have imagined.

As director Jonathan Hock explains, humans don't actually visually track an object in flight. They predict where it will be, and see it ahead of time. Average folks project about one-tenth of a second ahead. The very best hitters, though, can see the baseball two-tenths of a second ahead of where it actually is.

"With the pitchers' mound 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, it so happens that when a pitcher throws the ball the very fastest it can be thrown and a batter reacts the very fastest he can react, it's exactly when the ball gets to home plate," Hock said. "Sixty feet, 6 inches is such a strange distance, but they picked it exactly right. The game is in perfect balance, with the edge of human performance on the pitcher's end meeting the edge of human performance on the batter's end."

Hock is an eight-time Emmy Award winning producer, director, writer and editor. His most recent film, "Unguarded," about basketball player Chris Herren, was named Best Documentary of 2011 by Sports Illustrated.

Hock was approached several years ago by Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull, producer of "42," to make a film about the fastball. Tull had two overriding goals.

"First, he wanted to create the film every parent, kid, and baseball fan in the world will want to put in the DVD player every March for the next 50 years to get psyched for the baseball season, and fall in love all over again with the game," Hock explained. "And second, he wanted to put a stake in the ground and do the impossible -- to compare pitchers from different eras and figure out who threw the fastest ever."

Hock interviewed 20 Hall of Famers for "Fastball," including notable masters Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson and Goose Gossage, along with current fastballers Justin Verlander, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and David Price. The legendary Steve Dalkowski, who never made the big leagues but allegedly threw 110 mph and was the inspiration for the Nuke LaLoosh character in "Bull Durham," is also featured in the film.

"There are only a handful of guys on the whole planet who do this one thing well, and when you get them talking about it, you realize it must really be something to be given a gift and then be able to maximize that gift's potential," Hock said. "There's some code that has been unlocked for these guys, and they appreciate it and understand it in a way that the greatest writer in the world never could. They are just so articulate about what they do."

On the flip side, "Fastball" also includes Hall of Fame hitters Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt -- along with current stars Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper and Brandon Phillips -- discussing what it's like to face the hardest-throwing pitchers of all time.

As Hock puts it, baseball, at its root, is a primal battle between a man with a rock and a man with a stick. Everything else we know about the game is produced from that spark, which also ignites our instinctual affinity for watching a power pitcher face off against a power hitter.

Hock feels baseball fans will enjoy watching "Fastball" as much as he enjoyed creating it.

"Baseball fans fall in love with the game over and over again, and while making this, I fell in love harder than ever," he said. "The magic of baseball, the drama and mythology of it, it's all there in the film."


Lindsay Berra is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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