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Film about former Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis in prestigious festival

| Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Former Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis is shown in Bradenton, Fla., in this Feb. 1974 file photo taken during spring training. Ellis, who infamously claimed he pitched a no-hitter for Pittsburgh under the influence of LSD and later fiercely spoke out against drug and alcohol addiction, died Friday, Dec. 19, 2008, of a liver ailment in Calif. He was 63.

A film about the colorful and controversial life of former Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis will be among the 16 select entrants in the U.S. Documentary competition at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival next month in Park City, Utah, it was announced Wednesday.

“It seems like our world has been turned upside down,” Mike Blizzard, a producer of “No No: A Dockumentary,” said after learning of the selection.

There were 871 films submitted in the category. The Ellis documentary gets its name and was inspired by the famous (or infamous) 1970 no-hitter he pitched for the Pirates while under the influence of LSD.

Ellis battled drug and alcohol problems throughout his baseball career. He later sought treatment and became sober, working as a drug counselor with kids and substance abusers. He died in 2008 of complications from chronic liver disease at age 63.

The no-hitter was “how I came to this movie,” director Jeff Radice said. “But he was so much more than that.”

Blizzard said, “If it wasn't for the no-hitter, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. However, the more we got into the story of Dock Ellis, the story became more interesting.”

In an interview posted on the Sundance website, Trevor Groth, the festival's director of programming, cited the film, among others, as exemplifying “storytelling and a cinematic experience.”

A right-hander from the Los Angeles area, Ellis was a Pirates' mainstay for the better part of eight seasons from 1968 through 1975. He went 19-9 with a 3.16 ERA in 1971, starting both the All-Star Game and Game 1 of the World Series.

Ellis also belonged to a budding generation of outspoken, socially conscious black athletes who spoke out against inequality and indignities. He was a free-wheeling personality who famously wore hair curlers in public and was rarely camera shy.

With athletes still expected to live up to a narrowly defined image, much of the public and the media scorned his behavior. But there was another side to Ellis.

“One thing we heard over and over is that Dock was very misunderstood,” Blizzard said. “I think that while certainly some of his former teammates would admit he could be difficult at times, in large part they loved him as a teammate.”

Fourteen years after the fact, Ellis admitted to a reporter that he took LSD at around noon on June 12, 1970, in Los Angeles, believing it was an off day.

In fact, he was scheduled to face the Padres in San Diego six hours later. He flew down and took the mound, anyway. He walked eight and hit a batter. He also pitched a no-hitter in a 2-0 Pirates' win.

“It was about five weeks before I was born,” Radice said. “It basically encompasses my life, from that no-hitter to today. It just fascinated me.”

Radice helped produce some short documentaries that were nominated at Sundance, but “No No” is the first feature he directed. He said he began tinkering with the idea in 2004, nurturing it to a full-blown concept over five years. Radice said he and his crew conducted more than 40 interviews, many with Ellis' former teammates.

“This is really a movie about the Pittsburgh Pirates as well as Dock,” Radice said. “The Pirates presence in his life was fundamental.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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