I’ll say this for Ken Burns: The man knows how to tell a story. That much is clear. Otherwise he wouldn’t be what he is today: a man capable of picking and choosing whatever topic he wants to do a documentary about and making it—with plenty of funding and numerous big name interviews. That’s a nice gig to have.
Years ago, at the height of his reputation and in the afterglow of his enormous Civil War documentary success, Burns did a nine part (or innings, as he called them) series on baseball. Now, he returns with his four-hour “Tenth Inning,” which looks at the last two decades of baseball.
I entered this new edition with mixed feelings. I really liked what I saw of the original (caught it all except for the 1950s segment), but my least favorite part was the ninth inning. I thought it that last inning suffered from being too close to the events discussed. By its nature, the last inning lacked the historical perspective of the previous ones.
Also, and this isn’t so much directed at Burns as it is a general trend I’ve sometimes seen, some people who heavily promote baseball’s past and history use that legacy to beat the modern game. This isn’t fair to lump Burns in with those who do that, but the brief promos I saw for “”Tenth Inning contained snippets of how crushed people were by the ’94 strike or angst over steroids—and, oh man—if that’s what the four hours were going to be like, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it.
I needn’t have worried, though. By and large, it was an excellent job. How so? Let me count the ways . . .
First—and I really don’t think this will surprise anyone—Burns still knows how to tell a story, and the baseball moments he really sinks his teeth into really come alive. These moments ranged from Game Seven of the 1991 NLCS (which was a nice moment to focus on because it introduced both the 1990s Braves dynasty and Pittsburgh left fielder Barry Bonds) to the 2004 ALCS (you knew that was going to be in there, right?) and Burns handled them expertly.
I also liked Burns’ occasional sociological bent, as he noted how the game became more international, with the increasing rise of Hispanic players and later East Asian players. That was pretty well done (I had no idea a bunch of washed up Dominican prospects now played semi-pro ball in New York City). Plus it gave more time to present interviews with Pedro Martinez, and he may have been the best talking head in the entire “Tenth Inning.”
(Total side note: speaking of talking heads, I found it interesting that the “Tenth Inning” incorporated Keith Olbermann, because he wrote a lengthy (and frankly uber-nit-picking) critique of the original mini-series after it came out. Apparently any problems Olbermann and Burns had have been smoothed over).
Perhaps most of all, I liked the way Burns handled the potential minefield of steroids. The best way to understand Burns’ approach to the issue is to look at the final comment made about it all. Veteran sportswriter Thomas Boswell quoted a comment once made about Shakespeare. The Bard had the capacity to understand an issue thoroughly without leaping to one side in judging what’s going on. Life is more complex than just Right or Wrong.
For example, shortly after introducing the subject of steroids, Burns contextualized it in the long tradition of people bending the rules in baseball by discussing of the 1995 Albert Belle bat incident, with teammate Jason Grimsley sneaking into the umpire’s area to switch bats. (Burns threw in the theme song from “Mission Impossible,” a nice comedic touch). Then some talking heads ranging from John Thorn to Chris Rock (huh? Yeah, that Chris Rock) noted that it’s just human nature to try to get ahead and if you think a pill can do it, then many will always do it.
I suppose I also got a kick out of the miniseries because some of the most common criticisms I’ve seen people make (both with regard to the original series and the recent edition) miss the point as far as I’ve concerned.
For example, if you’re a really big baseball fan, don’t be surprised if you don’t learn too much from this. That really isn’t the point. Burns is more a synthesizer than a researcher, and this is more or less an extremely well done trip down memory lane. One person on Baseball Think Factory mentioned that the first half of the series (the two-hour “Top of the Tenth” from Tuesday night) was set up perfectly for his nine-year old son who wasn’t alive for that period of baseball. I think that’s a good way to approach what Burns did.
There’s a much more common criticism I’ve seen—it’s probably the most frequent complaint of all—and it’s one I have very little sympathy for. It’s they “Hey, he covered items A, B and C, but what about D, E and F?”
The only way to avoid that is to make a documentary that’s an inch deep and a mile wide. By that I mean the documentary covers as much ground as possible, and becomes so concerned with saying a little bit about everything it ultimately says nothing about it any of it. In other words, produce a four-hour, all-baseball version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Who wants to watch that? Not only is it bad storytelling, it shows an inability to focus and figure out what really mattered in the time period.
I’m sympathetic to this because I run into a similar problem in my day job, trying to teach college-level history courses. There always are more things to cover than time allows, and you have to decide what to cover and what to leave out, knowing damn well that some of what gets left out in and of itself can be worthy of your time. But you don’t have time for all of it.
There are things I wish he’d covered that he left out or items he spent more time on, but I can’t argue with the main themes he picked.
That said, while I thought it was generally an excellent job I thought the ending was a bit flat. Even worse, I think on its own terms the ending failed to deliver.
Much of the last hour focused on steroids. Okay, that’s understandable; it has been a huge story in recent years. However, Burns clearly didn’t want to end on a down note and so after finishing up on steroids he tacked on a brief final segment titled “Sun Shining.” This fell flat. It was only a few minutes long and consisted of a montage of final outs of the last five World Series. If Burns wants to make that the end it, he needs to do more.
Frankly, he had plenty to work with if he wanted to do that. Fun fact: After covering the 2004 ALCS, Burns discussed only steroids and Barry Bonds—until the uber-brief “Sun Shining” segment. In other words, the actual game of baseball ceased to exist in “Ken Burns’ Baseball” after 2004.
Again, it’s understandable and even appropriate to spend a bunch of time on ‘roids. However, that means Burns had a half-dozen years of actual baseball he was sitting on—footage he could have used to really make his point at the end.
If Burns really wanted to show baseball’s resilience in the face of adversity, he could’ve spent time on the White Sox finally winning their series, or the Cards-Mets NLCS in 2006, or the Rockies’ big pennant push in 2007, or something. He didn’t need any of these individual stories, but he needed something. It wouldn’t be necessary to present a lengthy, in-depth segment on any of them, but a good-sized bite.
Or, if he wanted to note how the game still reaches fans, mention MLB’s Extra Innings package that allows people to see their favorite team anywhere, or the rise of fantasy baseball. Burns’ last reel should’ve worked a lot better than it did. Ultimately, to make the end work, he should’ve spent 10-15 minutes on “Sun Shining” instead of five.
If he needed to find extra time, the best place to take it from would’ve been the sections on the 2003-04 Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. That also went on for a half-hour, and frankly it was the only time in the entire “Tenth Inning” I felt Burns got a self-indulgent.
Ultimately, I came into “Tenth Inning” with mixed feelings and left with some mixed feelings. By and large it was terrific and I’m glad I watched it. But he saved the worst for last.