Ken Burns back at bat with 'Baseball' documentary
September 26, 2010
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
From the moment the iconic black-and-white archival footage rolls, then fades into shots of impoverished Latin American children playing ball to the tune of Jose Feliciano’s sweet rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new documentary is a magic carpet ride through the last 20 years of baseball.
Never mind your crummy job (or lack thereof), never mind the pressures of everyday life — heck, never mind whether you’re a fan of the game or not. The momentum of this film carries you effortlessly off on the beer ’n’ hot dog, roasted peanut-scented American romp called baseball.
Manager Joe Torre and the Yankees celebrate after winning the 2000 World Series, less than a year before baseball would help New York and the nation heal after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"The Tenth Inning," a two-part, four-hour documentary, is the next chapter in the 1994 series "Baseball." From the crippling 1994 strike to the increasing dominance of Latino and Asian players, to mega-stadiums, interleague play and the wild card, we see America’s national pastime at its best and worst. Two decades of ups and downs — from doping scandal darlings Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds to the Cinderella-story Boston Red Sox — are put under a microscope and into the context of baseball’s past heroes and villains, then held up to the mirror of today’s America.
With the same deep love of the hallowed institution that permeated "Baseball," "The Tenth Inning" wastes little time in tackling the 100-pound gorilla in the diamond and jumps right into a discussion of what doping has done for — and to — the game. But it does so by first putting the issue of steroid use into the context of other soap-opera-esque discrepancies that have hovered at the margins of the game since its infancy: bribery attempts, game-fixing conspiracies and corked bats.
Then, Burns walks the issue home, straight into our medicine cabinets.
"We are a society that turns to performance-enhancement drugs for everything. There’s vitamins, sleeping aids — there’s Viagra!" Burns said back in August when he was in Chicago to pre-screen his film for WTTW members. He was echoing the very point that historian Paul Thorn made near the beginning of the first night’s episode: "We live in a time when we think anything can be cured by medication. If you want to talk about a performance-enhancing culture, let’s look at Viagra, Levitra, all the things that are advertised on daytime TV. This is the time we live in. We believe that modern medicine can make us supermen."
The film’s writers, David McMahon, Novick and Burns, don’t merely rely on luminaries such as comedian Chris Rock to point out that human nature dictates most people would take steroids to make it big in the big leagues. They anchor two decades’ worth of lightning-quick record smashes on the story of how Barry Bonds went from being a frustrated, mostly ignored son of a record-setting right fielder to the buff, steroid-popping home run king who never felt he’d gotten the respect or the due he deserved from both ballclubs and fans.
Based on exclusive pre-screenings, there is already some criticism of the documentary that implies the filmmakers went easy on Bonds by telling his personal story in such heart-wrenching detail, but Burns continually points to the bigger picture beyond any one player. The filmmakers point out the role fans played in Bonds’ saga, but Burns says the tension between succeeding and succeeding at any cost essentially boils down to the complexities of being human in our modern world. "Baseball is a precise mirror of who we are," Burns said.
This is not to say that "The Tenth Inning" dwells just on scandal; there are many complex and intertwined themes. For instance, the stories of immigrant baseball players and their struggles are woven throughout the film. And those stories dovetailed nicely with the business and marketing aspects of the game that are both a threat and an opportunity as baseball becomes more global and America becomes more diverse.
One particularly touching section of the documentary recalls what happened to baseball in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center. Then-Yankees manager Joe Torre talks about the morning the attacks occurred while archival footage plays, taking the viewers directly back into the moment before recalling Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001, when the Yankees resumed play against the White Sox in Chicago.
Images of fans holding signs saying "We are all Yankees" immediately bring us back to Burns’ basic premise: that baseball reflects the continuing evolution of a diverse America seeking to hold its athlete heroes to high standards even while forgiving their peccadilloes in order to enjoy the game, warts and all, and that this instinct binds us together as a community.
Burns and Novick also spend time on the 1994 strike, and the dramatic way then-hero Roger Clemens brought an ethic of hard work and fan love to the game and drove a resurgence in the game’s popularity.
Though there have been phenomenal changes to how athletes get into the game and fans experience it — enhanced minor league baseball recruitment and marketing; split screen; real-time viewing; smart-phone apps for fans to follow games, which bolster fantasy leagues, and whole communities devoted to following baseball from a strictly statistical viewpoint — Burns and Novick were not able to fit it all into this installment.
"The biggest criticism I ever hear is about all I’ve left out, which is actually a huge compliment," Burns said. "But I think we did get in some really important turning points in this inning.
"Baseball reflects who we are as a community, as a country. It reflects the sentimental values we hold dear and is the greatest game that has ever been invented," Burns said. "It has a rhythm; it’s like breathing."
Burns’ reverence and enthusiasm are present in almost every moment of this film — from the looks on the faces of impoverished children in the Dominican Republic who play their hearts out with broom-handle bats in the hopes of becoming the next Sammy Sosa, to the looks on fans’ faces when the infamous "Bartman ball" was exploded, to testimonials from Boston fans about how life-altering was the Red Sox’s 2004 World Series win — their first in 86 years.
This is a TV experience well worth blocking out two evenings’ worth of time. Viewers will not only revisit where baseball has been for the last 20 years but also catch a glimpse of what it might look like for generations to come.
Esther J. Cepeda writes a weekly column for the Sun-Times