Friday, September 5, 2014

Film Review: 'No No: A Dockumentary' illuminates Dock Ellis the man

Courtesy of
I was graciously approached to write a review about a movie which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival and is being released in theaters Sept. 5 titled, No No: A Dockumentary. The movie follows the path of former Major League pitcher Dock Ellis.

I knew of Ellis and his famed no-hitter while pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates and high on LSD. I admit to being intrigued by how director Jeffrey J. Radice would encapsulate this player’s career and life with the presumed theme of the game which made Ellis a notorious figure.

Well, Dock Ellis was much more than a man who abused alcohol and drugs while being pretty good at baseball. It is discussed in the film? Of course. Is it the basis of the film? Far from it. It's a fantastic journey.

Ellis was a man who took ownership of his actions, whether it was as an activist for blacks in the 60’s and 70’s, as a recovering addict before his death at 63 in 2008 or as a baseball player.

Radice weaves through stories of drugs, and tales of activism and moments on the field through Dock’s own words and those of his family, friends and teammates. Those providing commentary include Steve Blass, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, Enos Cabell, Tom Reich, Bob Watson, Dan Epstein, Mudcat Grant, Gene Clines, Scipio Spinks, Jim Sundberg, and Roberto Clemente, Jr.

Ellis was respected, maybe revered by many. Even his two wives, who he unfortunately physically abused at least one time each, stated how much they loved Dock. But fear of failure got to Ellis and he turned to drugs to remedy the situation.

Ellis fought prejudice head-on throughout his career but in 1971, his finest season, as the All-Star Game approached he rose up and made a spectacle of his desire to oppose the American League starter Vida Blue, another black man as the starter for the National League. Dock basically dared NL manager Sparky Anderson to start him by suggesting the white manager would start one of the white pitchers instead. Ellis got his wish and in the process earned the respect and admiration of Jackie Robinson who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.

In a poignant moment, Ellis read aloud a letter Robinson had sent him and began to weep. He had never read the letter in such a fashion. At that point, it was evident this picture was not going to be just about a raucous ballplayer whose live spiraled out of control, and the film is all the better for it.

Courtesy of Wiki-Commons
Ellis was described by his Pirates' teammates as a man who kept the clubhouse loose. Whether black or white, they were his teammates and they all had fun together. Many of them attributed Dock’s style, besides his great pitching, as helpful in winning the 1971 World Series over the Baltimore Orioles. It was great to hear the players recall Ellis being aloof in the clubhouse, and nothing but serious on the mound (drugs in his system or not).

Of course, Ellis and others talk about the game in which he entered baseball’s record books June 12, 1970. Ellis described himself as “high as a Georgia pine.”

Dock declared, “I was gone. I was in the wind, partied all night.”

Ellis almost missed the game against the San Diego Padres entirely, having gone out to Los Angeles the night before, where he took the LSD that stuck with him throughout the game. He was effectively wild that day, walking eight batters and hitting another, but not a single Padre recorded a hit. After the game, still high, he didn’t know what he’d accomplished.

Ellis was not proud of his actions on the mound that day in which he tossed the no-hitter. Ron Howard mentions late in the film that Ellis was “embarrassed” and while happy his name is in the record books for the feat he would take it all back if he could.

And that’s what this movie is really about. It’s about a man overcoming his fears, not through the abuse of drugs, but by finally pushing his addiction to the curb. After a terrible night of physically abusing his second wife, Ellis had one last bottle of vodka and went for treatment.

He turned his life around, but more importantly the lives of many others as well. He became an advocate for ridding Major League Baseball of abusive drugs. He counseled ballplayers, young adults and inmates along the way. He devoted the remainder of his life to preaching about why substance abuse was harmful to the individual and those around them. He convinced many to change their path.

Dock Ellis was much more than the man who tossed a no-hitter on LSD. He touched the lives of numerous people; as a friend, a husband, a teammate and as a mentor. In footage from a speech Ellis went back to that letter of Robinson’s.

Ellis said, “Jackie Robinson, he might have said it all. [A long pause as Ellis collects himself at the podium.]  When he said, ‘You might want to give up.’ But I never did and I never will.”

I highly recommend to anyone who thinks they know the Dock Ellis story to see it and then be prepared to walk away with a new view.

No No: A Dockumentary opens in theaters Sept. 5 and additional theaters will get the film throughout the rest of the month. Click here for the official website which details dates, cities and theaters.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer/editor and the Director of Content Strategy for Sportsideo.