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Fastball' brings the heat

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Baseball documentary seeks the fastest of the fast

With Opening Day of the major league baseball season upon us, there's nothing surprising about a documentary filmmaker turning his lens onto America's Pastime. And there's nothing surprising about said filmmaker choosing to focus on one specific part of the game.

'Fastball' is the latest from prolific sports documentarian Jonathan Hock. It's a film intended to take a close look at one of the game's purest feats of physicality. There's plenty of nuance and skill that can be taught with regards to baseball, but there are certain things that simply cannot be taught. A blazing fastball sits atop that list.

With narration from Kevin Costner, the film reaches back into the game's history in an effort to determine just who threw the fastest fastball of all time. Interviews and archival footage abounds, with some of the greats of yesterday and today sharing their thoughts about the greatest of the great. Modern players like David Price, Justin Verlander, Derek Jeter and Brandon Phillips (among others) discuss their thoughts on the pitch; plenty of Hall of Famers like Hank Aaron get their chance to weigh in as well. Maybe the most consistently entertaining is a sort of panel discussion taking place in Cooperstown - featuring George Brett, Joe Morgan, Al Kaline, Johnny Bench and the late Tony Gwynn chatting about the best they ever saw.

Famed fastballers such as Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax are mentioned; we also get some time with the largely-forgotten Steve Dalkowski, whose control problems kept perhaps the greatest arm ever to that point from ever pitching in the majors. Through multiple generations of ballplayers, we hear about some of the greatest fireballers in the history of the game, but while there are plenty of names bandied about, the general consensus boils down to just three names.

In terms of the first part of the 20th century, pretty much everyone in the game stood in awe of Walter Johnson's fastball. The young man spring forth from small-town Idaho and basically redefined what it meant to throw a fastball in his time with the Washington Senators; his nickname 'Big Train' came from the sound that his pitches made as they whizzed past the batter.

His speed was such that he was enlisted to become the very first pitcher to have the velocity of his pitches scientifically measured. The convoluted device that was used wound up tracking Johnson's speed at 122 feet per second (this was in 1912, remember MPH wasn't yet a common measurement). This translated to roughly 84 MPH.

Bob Feller was another small-town guy, coming out of Iowa and throwing his amazing fastball past big league hitters while still just a teenager. In his time with the Cleveland Indians, he was believed to have the best fastball ever. 'Rapid Robert' used that pitch to become the bane of the American League for 18 seasons, setting strikeout records galore.

Several efforts were made to measure Feller's fastball including one time that he actually raced his fastball against a policeman on a motorcycle but the generally accepted 'fastest' was measured at 98.6 MPH.

Last but not least, we have Nolan Ryan. No pitcher in the game's modern history has brought the combination of power and durability to the mound that Ryan brought to bear over the course of his 27-year-career. He holds the single-season and career strikeout records and threw seven no-hitters. The last pitch he threw from a major league mound at age 46 was clocked at 98 MPH.

Since the mid-1970s, Ryan has been the official record holder for fastest fastball; in 1974, the folks at the Guinness Book of World Records utilized an early version of the now-ubiquitous radar gun to capture Ryan's speed. The fastest measured pitch was 100.9 MPH in the ninth inning.

What 'Fastball' does after giving us this information is fascinating. See, each of these pitches had its speed measured at a different point and in a different manner. Basically, we get a physics and math breakdown that allows the speeds of the pitches to be normalized in terms of how current measurements are gathered (note: the current point of comparison is reliever Aroldis Chapman, whose fastball has been clocked at 105 MPH).

As to the big question who was fastest? No spoilers, but this film offers up its own answer, one that blends the 'who' and the 'how' beautifully.

'Fastball' is a fascinating look at one of baseball's most primal forces. It's a wonderful combination of nostalgia and thought experiment that really digs deep into one of the game's eternal cornerstones. Any baseball fan would do well to add this one to their 'must-watch' list.

[5 out of 5]

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