Ken Burns returned to the style and content of his 1994 mini-series epic Baseball to bring us up to date by taking us into extra innings. For fans of the game, this is a must-have addition to the original, and even for those with no interest in the long history of the sport, the past 15 years or so have brought enough drama and craziness to intrigue even the most casual viewer, with the home run race of 1998, the steroid scandal, and even the Boston Red Sox finally claiming a World Series crown and breaking "The Curse of the Bambino."
Much of the focus of this two-part mini-series is appropriately on Barry Bonds, the Pirates/Giants superstar who polarized a nation while breaking records left and right. He was a dick with the press and oftentimes with the fans, and he was also one of the greatest to ever play the game. He could have been content with that and as a shoe-in to the hall of fame, but when the summer of 1998 passed him by, he couldn’t handle the jealousy of seeing Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire take his spotlight with their chase of the single-season home run record. It was in 1998 that Bonds achieved 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases, but his achievement was overshadowed by that great race to 70 home runs. Bonds' frustration with this would lead to even bigger numbers for him, and even bigger problems for fans and the game.
Before that, there was the nasty issue of the 1994 strike. When the original mini-series was filmed, it was the end of the 1992 season. Filmmaker Ken Burns wrapped that nine-part series with the notion that baseball had made it through everything in this country and had proven itself the one thing that nothing could stop. It was sadly ironic, then, that by the time it aired on PBS in 1994, it was the only baseball on television, and what had finally stopped the game was a dispute over money. Greed over financial figures in the millions aborted what was poised to be a great season of baseball, with the Montreal Expos on the road to unlikely champions, Matt Williams on pace to break Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record long before McGwire and Sosa, and Tony Gwinn holding a late-season average near .400. But none of that would matter as it all came to an end abruptly with a work stoppage.
When baseball came back the following season, the fans didn’t. Cal Ripken’s consistency in setting the new consecutive-games-played record drew some of them back, but it was the baseball mashing of the late 1990s that brought in record crowds, as offensive records were being smashed. And that was when steroids first became a topic of discussion.
Burns left us with Bonds feeling bitter and the 1998 season behind us. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were superstars in a spectacle that transcended baseball. Communities got so caught up in the home run race, updates were broadcast over store loudspeakers and interrupted television shows when either of them would knock another one out of the park. We didn’t want to think about steroids and asterisks in the record books, and maybe we wouldn’t have had to if not for Barry Bonds and others trying to get bigger and faster and harder to hit even more home runs and find even more fame. This first half of The Tenth Inning did a great job of showing how a response to the strike and an attempt to lure in fans by making a spectacle out of the sport worked, while setting us up beautifully for the troubles to come.
Covering the last 10 years or so, Baseball: The Bottom of the Tenth looks at the influx of Asian and Latin players to the game, as well as its reactions to the 9/11 attacks and the improbable World Series championship season for the Boston Red Sox, erasing years of frustration. In fact, it spends a little too much time on that. While we get painstaking, almost pitch-by-pitch details of their dramatic victory over the Yankees to go to the World Series in 2004, the film provides almost no follow-up about all the hoopla that erupted over the fan-interference situation in Chicago that signaled the end of one of their big years of contention. Behind the Red Sox, only the Cubs have gone as long without a World Series title, and they have their own curse to decry.
Plus, with all the talk about players juicing up, fueled by Jose Canseco’s book naming names and the awkwardly somber Congressional hearings on the matter, there is virtually no mention of Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals. While Bonds' head was exploding, Pujols was putting together Hall of Fame numbers from his first season and has positioned himself as one of the best and most popular players of the modern era. How can you explore baseball and not even mention one of the game’s most popular players of the past decade? Is it because St. Louis is a Midwest town, and nobody cares as much about the middle of the country?
I guess it’s something the Midwest is kind of used to at this point, but it’s a little frustrating to see the contributions of the Central Divisions virtually ignored in a documentary that’s supposed to be applauding the entire sport. Especially considering how important those teams are to the fabric of the sport. Other than Sosa and McGwire’s home run chase, which was impossible to ignore, you’d think baseball was played exclusively in New England and California, save for a few teams cropping up from other places every once in awhile.
Still, for all its coastal bias, The Tenth Inning does a good job of shedding some light on the dark times of the steroid scandal, as well as humanizing both sides in the ongoing struggle between the owners and the Players Association. Burns celebrates one of America’s greatest sports with appreciation and an evident love for the craft and majesty of baseball, so one can’t help but appreciate that.
At least in the extras, Burns admits to being a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. He also basically admits a huge Red Sox bias in these additional innings to what may wind up becoming his life's work. It's a shame for fans of the entire sport that so much emphasis is given to one team, but as the whole project is Burns' baby, I guess we can't blame him. He wears his love on his sleeve, though, as even on the extras we're offered a video of a tour of the Red Sox's beloved Fenway Park. This video made me want to see one for every park in the game, particularly the ones that have been around long enough to have some history, like Wrigley Field in Chicago. Another video simply offers various vantage points throughout a key game in their first World Series year, while still another follows a day in Spring Training.
Additional interviews with Burns and Lynn Novick, who helped him with both Baseball projects, explore what brought them back to the game for these follow-up documentaries, as well as the challenges they had in determining how to explore the very touchy subject of steroid abuse. We also get more than an hour of additional interview footage that didn't make it into the broadcast versions, with the various regular talking heads covering topics from all aspects of the game, and several of the heavy hitters of the sport -- but again, that coastal bias is evident. At least Chicago seems to register from time to time, but maybe that's because they have that lake coast that's tricking everyone.
The additions offer a nice coda to the series, as there is plenty of interesting and compelling information gleaned in these interviews that may not have fit the narrative weaved throughout The Tenth Inning but nevertheless contribute intelligently to the discussion of the sport. A lot has been written and discussed about baseball in the past 15 years, but Burns has done a great job of boiling it all down into one tidy package that can be tackled in one long afternoon. And he managed to avoid painting anyone as villains in any of their sordid scandals of recent years, which is a feat most others haven't managed.