September 27, 2010
After waiting 15 years for the present to turn into ripe history suitable for his documenting, Ken Burns returns to his PBS "Baseball" world with the airing of "The Tenth Inning" on Tuesday and Wednesday night.
The four-hour series is split into two-hour halves and covers everything from the 1994 strike to the fallout from the 1998 home run chase, Barry Bonds' passing of Hank Aaron and the rest of the Steroid Era.
We interviewed Burns for our "Why Is This News?" podcast last week and I promised a few expanded thoughts before the documentary aired. So without further delay, here are 10 quick thoughts after watching an advance copy of Burns' latest offering.
1. Make no mistake: If you're a fan of both baseball and Burns' style, you're going to enjoy these four hours as our recent memories are committed to the type of historic frame we experienced in the first nine episodes. The film has some shortcomings and is sure to start some arguments because even four hours isn't enough to address all the changes the game has gone through since 1994.
However, filmmaking is all about making decisions about inclusion, and baseball is nothing if not a great debate and conversation starter. By combining the two, Burns should have most of the blogosphere talking by Wednesday morning.
2. Also, don't kid yourself into thinking that all teams are created equally in Burns' universe: The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are the unchallenged stars of the show. It gets to be a little much at times — especially when Mike Barnicle starts doing the usual poetic Red Sox fan bit —but it's impossible to deny that both teams were the major players of this era.
Even if Burns weren't a Red Sox fan, it'd be impossible to tell the story of 1994-2009 without focusing on how the two franchises started dominating baseball's scene and changed the dynamic of competition across the league. Burns could have made a more balanced piece by taking a parallel look at the new challenges of the small-market teams like Kansas City or Pittsburgh, but unfortunately refrained from doing so.
3. I'm just going to save fans of the 2005 Chicago White Sox, 2006 St. Louis Cardinals and 2008 Philadelphia Phillies some stress: Despite your teams also breaking long World Series slumps, don't sit through the second episode thinking they'll eventually get their just due. All three are only briefly mentioned near the end in a "Oh crap, we better include these championships before their fans get ticked at us" highlight montage. Also, the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and 2003 Florida Marlins don't win their World Series as much as the Yankees lose them. Probably no big surprise there.
4. With the great Buck O'Neil — the Shelby Foote-type star of the first series — enjoying his heavenly reward, Burns' best interview subjects are now ESPN's Howard Bryant (right) and a very funny Pedro Martinez(notes).
Bryant is succinct and has an unmatched way of weighing the triumphs and tragedies of the last 15 years against each other. You'll be amazed at the number of times you'll shake your head in complete agreement with him.
Pedro, meanwhile, is both enlightening and entertaining during the segment on the rising number of Hispanic players. (So much so that I suggested he serve as an analyst for either TBS or FOX during this year's postseason.) He does so well that you wonder why Burns didn't interview more players to help tell the story. As ESPN's Jim Caple notes, the only ones we hear from are Pedro, Omar Vizquel(notes) and Ichiro(notes).
5. Most disappointing interview subjects: Bud Selig is his usual politicking self (even though he should get credit for semi-copping to the steroids mess) and former union head Don Fehr is maddening while remaining defiant about the players' need to strike 15 years later.
Marcos Breton of the Sacramento Bee also gets a lot of face time because of his proximity to Barry Bonds and the 2002 World Series (an underrated series and segment), but doesn't exactly qualify as one of baseball's leading voices. Meanwhile, George Will and Doris Kearns Goodwin are again too stodgy for anyone who eats dinner after 6 p.m.
6. John Kiesewetter of The Cincinnati Enquirer already noted that Ken Griffey is largely absent from the episode — despite being on the DVD cover (above) — and he's not the only one. I'm surprised that Alex Rodriguez(notes) and Albert Pujols(notes) didn't receive more attention for being the two best players of the 2000s, but maybe their pursuits of Bonds' records will serve as the main storylines for "The Eleventh Inning" if Burns or anyone else continues the series.
7. Because of the large volume of film and interview subjects available to Burns, this edition feels different than almost all of his other works. The "Ken Burns Effect" on still photographs is rarely in play and I don't remember a single letter or newspaper passage being read out loud by narrator Keith David. Those aren't bad things as his essential voice stays the same; it's just interesting to see the way Burns' presentation shifts when the source material arrives in different mediums.
8. I won't ruin it, but Jon Miller is going to be a villain in the SABR community for one comment he makes during the too-brief segment on the growing statistical movement.
9. Burns made an insulting and irresponsible comment about the "complete irresponsibility of the blogosphere" during our podcast and his aversion to the oh-so-scary world of technology shows in the documentary. Though MLB.com and the blogosphere has made a big impact in how we consume and enjoy games (not to mention on the amount of money the league makes), we don't get even a whiff of that big sea change.
10. Finally, I expect that most of the arguments will be about what Burns did not include in this film — he also should have addressed the decline of black players as well as the rise of the NFL behemoth — but we should also take the time to debate if he pegged this era correctly. After all, he didn't have the luxury of time when drawing conclusions (some storylines have yet to even conclude) so it's worth discussing whether we think this is a film that will stand the test of time. For a first draft, I think he came awfully close. I'll be interested to hear what all of you take from it.