the early 1990s, documentarian Ken Burns became a PBS sensation through his
acclaimed documentary series on The Civil War. As the follow-up, he
decided that he wanted to look back at something even more American than the
war of the states.
1994 he returned with a 21-hour documentary series on the American pastime,
Baseball. The series was another huge hit – a sprawling and wide-ranging
look at over a century of the sport (although the series only covered
through 1992). In fact, the series started airing soon after the sport
became embroiled in one of the biggest turmoils in the storied history of
the sport – the acrimonious players’ strike which led to the World Series
being cancelled for the only time in the history of the sport.
Sixteen years later, the constantly evolving game has gone through some huge
changes – including having two of its most storied records toppled (one of
them three times!), a huge scandal that embroiled some of the biggest names
in the sport and one of the most storied franchises in the sport finally
breaking a generations-old championship drought.
Therefore Burns and partner Lynn Novick slipped back into the editing booth
to cobble together a four-hour continuation of their work. Broken up into
two parts – “The Top of the Tenth” covers 1992 to 1999 and “The Bottom of
the Tenth” continues to the end of the 2009 season – Baseball: The Tenth
Inning tries its best to make sense of what has happened in the sport in
the last couple of decades.
course in a sport which has generated tens of thousands of hours of video in
the past eighteen years is somewhat difficult to condense into just four
Burns does the best that he can, however a huge amount of this program
essentially boiled down to three huge stories which Burns and Novick have
decided pretty much define the two decades. These stories are the strike
and its aftermath, the home run explosion and subsequent steroid scandal and
the explosion of foreign players in the Major Leagues.
most interesting is the steroid story, with Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger
Clemens and Mark McGwire’s meteoric rises and falls providing a fascinating
reminder of a not-that-long-ago era. Also of interest is the severe
backlash the league suffered after the 1994 strike – and the obvious
surprise of both the owners and the Players’ Association about the vitriol
of the fans.
explosion of Latin American and Japanese players also makes for some
intriguing viewing; particularly interesting are interviews with Dominican
pitcher Pedro Martinez and Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki.
Then, the final two hour episode also does rather in-depth breakdowns of
several classic playoff series (many of which feature the Yankees and/or Red
Sox). This is all fun enough to see, however it is also nothing that you
can’t see on ESPN Classic on any night of the week. Plus, it sort skews the
importance of the playoffs, intimating that little of worth happens in
Periodically Burns and Novick try to give historical perspective to the
game. This is particularly effective in a section that looks at how the
major leagues responded to the World Trade Center attacks of 2001 – leading
to a touching anecdote by MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann, who recounts having
a New York City cop discuss the importance of the sport as a distraction
while standing in the rubble of the Twin Towers. Other historical
connections are a bit more of a leap – was the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home
run race of 1998 really a needed respite for America to get over the Monica
Still, Baseball: The Tenth Inning provides a relatively good
thumbnail sketch of the state of the sport in the early 21st Century.
However, I have the same problem with The Tenth Inning that I had
with the earlier, longer series.
Ken Burns seems to hate my favorite team, the Phillies.
worse, he ignores them. The Phillies are not mentioned at all until the
last five minutes, where they quickly show a clip of the
team winning the 2008 World Series and a couple of short clips of
them in their unsuccessful attempt to recapture the championship against the
Evil Empire. The whole thing lasts about a minute. Otherwise, the only
times that the Phillies are shown is when they are striking out to a great
pitcher (usually on the Braves) or giving up a long homer.
can even understand the lack of the Phillies in the first episode which
covered 1992 to 1999. The team was mostly a train wreck in the 90s, though
they did have one huge year and went to one of the most dramatic World
Series of the decade. (Burns does show the famous Joe Carter homer off
Mitch Williams to win the 1993 series at the very beginning of the first
episode, but he does it out of context so that if you weren’t a hardcore fan
you wouldn’t know what game that was.)
lack of Phils in the second episode is much more problematic. The team only
has the best record in the second half of the decade, has won its division
four straight times (in fairness, only three in the timeline of the
documentary) and is the odds-on favorite to return to a third straight World
Series. I think they deserve at least a few minutes and one talking head.
went through enough losing over the years that I am
sensitive to it when the Phils deserve some
notice, but in Baseball, Burns shunned the Whiz Kids and the 70s-80s
perennial winner – and now that they have the best team in franchise history
the Phils still can’t get the guy to pay any attention.
Okay, I know that is a personal gripe. I realize that there are thirty
teams in MLB and they can’t all be covered equally. However, it does
point out the biggest problem with this project. In four hours of film, I
would say at least 50% of the time is spent on the Yankees, the Red Sox and
Braves, with another 25% to the Giants, Cardinals and the Cubs. (And
honestly, beyond Bobby Bonds, Mark McQwire and Sammy Sosa, those last three
teams would have barely been present either.)
mean, I get it. Bobby Bonds was the greatest player of his generation as
well as the biggest scandal – however, we keep returning to Bonds’
well-documented story at the expense of all the others who played in Major
League Baseball over a time period of eighteen years.
of fans for lots of teams like the Phils are going to feel cheated.
Specifically, the Mets, Dodgers, Reds, White Sox, Angels, Rockies, Marlins,
Twins and Rays are all teams which have had great success in the past two
decades and are barely mentioned. And perennial losers like the Royals,
Pirates, Expos/Nationals, Brewers and Tigers… fuggedaboutit!
Burns points out that the smaller market teams feel that the Yanks and the
Red Sox have an unfair advantage in both money and media attention – and
then he goes and proves the point by lavishing yet more media attention on
these two overexposed teams.
However, even with this bias, Burns is a strong enough filmmaker and the
subject is so ceaselessly interesting that Baseball: The Tenth Inning
is never less than entertaining, and often fascinating.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.
All rights reserved. Posted:
October 1, 2010.