They say baseball is a game of inches, but it’s also measured in milliseconds — the 450 it takes for a 90-mile-an-hour fastball to cover the distance from pitcher to plate, vs. the 396 for a hundred-miler. For the batter, that’s the difference between barely hittable and didn’t-even-see-it.
Just in time for baseball season — the Jays’ first game is April 3 in Tampa — Jonathan Hock’s gripping documentary drills deep into the lore, legend and science behind the fastball. Perhaps the most startling statistic: in a century that has seen athletes break records in speed, endurance and distance, the fastest pitch hasn’t changed much.
Archival footage mixed with modern interviews, and narrated by (who else?) Kevin Costner, takes viewers from Walter Johnson’s 122 feet-per-second pitches — the first to be scientifically measured, in 1912 — through Bob Feller (in the 1940s he threw pitches opposite a speeding police motorcycle) to Nolan Ryan, whose 27 seasons broke all kinds of records, including speed. The very last professional fastball he threw, at the age of 46, was clocked at 98 mph.
Along the way are interviews with such phenoms as Bob “Hoot” Gibson, whose earned-run-average in 1968 was a record-setting 1.12; Cuba’s Aroldis Chapman, who once registered 105 on the radar gun; and Steve Dalkowski, whose bullet pitches were hampered by a lack of accuracy.
The film also examines the physics and neurology behind the great match-ups. PhD Gregg Franklin tackles the belief among ballplayers that a fastball will actually rise on its way to the plate. Not true, he says; it’s an optical illusion created because the ball’s great speed, plus some lift from backspin, causes it to drop less than our brains expect.
Whether you believe that or not – many players swear by what they perceive, physics be damned – Fastball will change the way you watch the game, without ever diminishing the sport’s mystery and grandeur. 3.5 stars
Fastball opens March 25 at the Carlton in Toronto, and on demand.
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