09.27.10

Ken Burns Tackles Baseball Again

Yankees fan Allen Barra talks to the documentarian about The Tenth Inning, which ‘roid users will make the Hall of Fame, and whether Burns gives too much attention to the Red Sox.

Ken Burns thinks I lack maturity. "You Yankee fans really do have to grow up," says the co-creator and director (along with Lynn Novick) of Baseball: The Tenth Inning, the two-part, four-hour continuation of the PBS series Baseball, which premieres Tuesday. All I did was to suggest that his new work, The Tenth Inning—a continuation of his PBS series, Baseball, which brings the game up to date from 1992 through the 2009 season—might be better without the time devoted to the 2004 Boston Red Sox' championship year.

I thought one of the best things about all nine parts of Baseball was that the Red Sox didn't win anything after 1918. "Come on," says Burns. "The history of the Red Sox has much to offer any baseball fan. They say the greatest teacher in baseball is loss. Think how much Red Sox fans have learned compared to Yankees fans."

In that case, I tell him, I'll remain a happily ignorant Yankees fan.

"New York and Boston didn't really even become a rivalry until 2004. Before that, the Yankees always won. You've got Babe Ruth, you've Bucky Dent's home run [to beat the Red Sox in a 1978 playoff game], you've got Aaron Boone's home run [to win the 2003 American League pennant].

"Give us a couple of moments like that 2004 miracle comeback. What an incredible victory parade"—some of the best footage in The Tenth Inning. "Look how many people show up at a Yankees victory parade. Now think about what the streets of Boston looked like in 2004 after the Red Sox won. If there was any way of counting, I'll bet Red Sox fans put proportionately five times the number of people in the streets."

Fortunately for Yankees fans, Boston's 2004 championship is just one of the major events, personalities, and trends of the last 17 seasons, perhaps the most tumultuous span in baseball history, compressed into four hours. Among the major topics The Tenth Inning covers are the 1994 strike, which wiped out the playoffs and World Series (and which was ended by a decision by Judge Sonia Sotomayor); Cal Ripken, Jr.'s breaking Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games; the rise and dominance of Latino players with an emphasis on the rich vein of talent from the Dominican Republic; the great home run explosion of 1998; the coming of Ichiro Suzuki to the Seattle Mariners in 2000 followed by other Japanese stars; baseball's role in the return to normalcy after the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks; and, hovering like a dark cloud, the revelations about performance-enhancing drugs.

The principal talking heads this time around are Keith Olbermann, George Will, and writers and historians John Thorn, Mike Barnicle, Marcos Breton, and Howard Bryant. And, in an interesting off-speed pitch, future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, perhaps the greatest pitcher of the era. The professorial voice of John Chancellor, Baseball's narrator, has been traded for the sonorous tones of actor Keith David, who provides an appropriate edge and sharp contrast to the modern material.

Video screenshot

Selecting the touchstones in baseball's recent past was no simple task.

In Baseball, Burns and his team managed to put perspective on a staggering amount of material encompassing more than 150 years of the game's history and lore. In some ways, getting perspective on the last on the last 17 seasons was tougher. "We had the same problem when we were doing Jazz," Burns explains. "There's nothing harder than looking back on the recent past and trying to determine what is significant—what's going to be important for the next several decades. The biggest problem was how to deal with the impact of drugs on the game."

As one might expect, a large chunk of The Tenth Inning is devoted to the controversy surrounding steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Much to Burns' credit, the segment doesn't come off as judgmental, not even in the considerable time devoted to Barry Bonds, whose association with the BALCO lab in San Francisco coincided with his becoming, late in his career, the greatest player the game had ever seen. Bonds' trajectory in the National League is juxtaposed with that of Ken Griffey, Jr., the best player in the American League at this time, about whom there has never been a whisper of scandal.

"We take pills to do everything better," Burns says. "That's the kind of culture we are. Yet, like Claude Rains, we're shocked, shocked to find out that people with multimillion-dollar contracts on the line are using PEDs."

Or, as Chris Rock in a witty aside puts it, "Who in the whole country wouldn't take a pill to make more money at their job? You would. If there's a pill and you're gonna get paid like Steven Spielberg, you would take the pill. You just would."

Does Burns think that PED users will ever be forgiven by Hall of Fame voters? Will those players whose names have been associated with steroids and other drugs eventually be inducted into the Hall? "I don't have a vote and I'm not telling people how they should vote. But if you're asking me to project, I don't think Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa will ever make it. I think Barry Bonds definitely will, but Roger Clemens is iffy."

Why no to Sammy and Mac, and why yes to Barry?

"I think McGwire and Sosa were one-note players whose only real talent was hitting home runs, and I think too many people are going to say 'Who knows what kind of boost they got from PEDs? Without that artificial help, would they really be Hall of Famers?' Barry Bonds, on the other hand, I don't think there's any question that he was the greatest all-around player of his time, that he excelled in every area of the game and that he was a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate well before his association with the BALCO lab in San Francisco."

Couldn't one say the same about Roger Clemens, that he had been the best pitcher in baseball for many years well before he met Brian McNamee, the trainer who allegedly became Clemens' steroid-pusher?

"Yeah, but there's that perjury thing hanging out there. We're going to have to see how that comes out. That might be one of the things we would have to lead with if we ever do an Eleventh Inning."

It sounds, I suggest, that Burns is suggesting that we must all come to terms with PEDs and move on. "Something like that," he says. "What are we going to do? Go back throughout history and add asterisks to everything, the 1919 Black Sox World Series? Are we going to take the title away from the Cincinnati Reds because some White Sox players were bought off? Are we going to put asterisks on the records of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams because they didn't have to play against black players during most of their careers?

“What are we going to do? Go back throughout history and add asterisks to everything?”

"How will we ever know for sure that Derek Jeter or Pedro Martinez or Albert Pujols never touched drugs? We either let the steroid era ruin the game for us or we agree that the game is greater than such distractions. Like Keith Olbermann says at the beginning of the show, 'What I love about baseball is that you're still watching the same game as people saw 160 years ago. When you go to a game, you feel like you're joining a river midstream.'"

If there's one truly refreshing aspect to The Tenth Inning, it's Burns and Novick's outright refusal to give themselves over to nostalgia when putting together a film about a sport whose lifeblood is nostalgia. "If you look past the money, the scandals, and the politics—and we try to—and cut to the essence of the game itself, you will admit that the last two decades have given us more great players with more diverse backgrounds and skills than any previous time. This is the real golden era of baseball. "

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.