Ace re­liever

Changes in base­ball in­spire Ken Burns to take the mound for ‘Tenth In­ning.’

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - BY DAVID DAVIS

Ken Burns stands be­hind home plate at Dodger Sta­dium, un­suc­cess­fully try­ing to cor­ral his preter­nat­u­ral boy­ish grin. He plucks at the web­bing of his Kirby Puck­ett-en­dorsed mitt be­fore strolling to the pitcher’s mound.

Toe­ing the rub­ber, the 57-year-old Burns hurls a well-aimed pitch to Dodgers catcher Brad Aus­mus, then leaves the field to po­lite ap­plause.

“That was a strike all the way,” he says, beam­ing, “and [Dodgers Man­ager] Joe Torre gave me the thumbs-up.”

The evening has just be­gun for the most prom­i­nent doc­u­men­tary filmmaker this side of Michael Moore. Burns schmoozes with broad­caster Vin Scully in the press box, con­ducts a spir­ited Q-and-A in­side the lux­ury suite of cor­po­rate pa­tron Bank of Amer­ica, then heads to seats be­yond the left field foul pole to watch the game with de­voted view­ers of lo­cal PBS af­fil­i­ate KCET.

Ac­com­pa­nied by co-di­rec­tor and co-pro­ducer Lynn Novick, Burns’ Au­gust ap­pear­ance in L.A. is part of the bang-the-drum pro­mo­tion for “Tenth In­ning,” their two-part, four-hour doc­u­men­tary about the sport Burns calls “quintessen­tially Amer­i­can.” It airs Tues­day and Wed­nes­day on PBS.

If the pair­ing of Burns and the na­tional pas­time seems fa­mil­iar, it’s be­cause “Tenth In­ning” is a post­script (an ex­tra in­ning, if you will) to “Base­ball,” Burns and Novick’s nine-part, 181⁄ 2-hour epic from 1994. The lat­ter was a valen­tine to


the game’s sprawl­ing his­tory, from its emer­gence in the 19th cen­tury to its role as a so­cial force af­ter Jackie Robin­son’s break­through in the 1940s to its ex­alted po­si­tion within the sports-en­ter­tain­ment-me­dia nexus.

In “Tenth In­ning,” Burns and Novick fo­cus on events since the early 1990s, in­clud­ing the 1994 strike that forced the can­cel­la­tion of the World Se­ries and de­railed the game’s pop­u­lar­ity; the home-run chases of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds; the rise of Latino and Asian play­ers; and the cloud of steroid and per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing-drug use.

“With the ex­cep­tion of the 1940s and Jackie Robin­son, you’d be hard pressed to find two more con­se­quen­tial decades than the ’90s and the aughts, in terms of the game and by ex­ten­sion the coun­try,” Burns says.

An evolv­ing pas­time

Base­ball, Burns notes, is “a barom­e­ter of the on­go­ing Amer­i­can nar­ra­tive.” The smash­ing of the game’s home-run records co­in­cided with what Burns calls “the ris­ing tide of the ’90s and the un­lim­ited con­fi­dence that the good times would never end.” The rev­e­la­tions and dis­gust over steroid use were the “screech­ing of brakes con­cur­rent with other things hap­pen­ing in this coun­try since 9/11.”

So too the grow­ing pres­ence of Latin ballplay­ers (be­tween 25% and 30% of all ma­jor lea­guers) over­laps with the re­cent de­bate over im­mi­gra­tion. Burns, who faced crit­i­cism for ig­nor­ing the role of Latin Amer­i­cans in his World War II doc­u­men­tary, says, “Now you have to look at base­ball in black and white and brown.”

The con­tem­po­rari­ness seems to have lib­er­ated Burns as a filmmaker. Much of “Base­ball,” like “Civil War,” re­lied on his trade­mark tech­nique of slowly pan­ning across still pho­to­graphs, acous­tic strings a-twang­ing in the back­ground. (The tone is so ubiq­ui­tous that Ap­ple dubbed the iPhoto and iMovie ap­pli­ca­tions that mimic this “the Ken Burns Ef­fect.”)

In “Tenth In­ning,” Burns and Novick es­chewed blackand-white im­agery (and ban­jos) for color pho­tos and game high­lights, much of which was li­censed from Ma­jor League Base­ball. They jour­neyed to the Dominican Re­pub­lic to film scenes at the Dodgers’ Campo Las Pal­mas academy and cap­ture the Latino beis­bol ex­pe­ri­ence.

Mean­while, the sound­track fea­tures Pub­lic En­emy, the Beastie Boys and Bruce Spring­steen. Mu­sic from Tower of Power is an in­sider’s nod to for­mer band mem­ber Vic­tor Conte, who formed the BALCO com­pany at the cen­ter of the steroids scan­dal.

New­com­ers Torre, ESPN’s Howard Bryant, MSNBC’s Keith Ol­ber­mann and Sacra­mento Bee colum­nist Mar­cos Bre­ton join Burns’ cast of fa­mil­iar voices (nar­ra­tor Keith David) and talk­ing heads (colum­nist Ge­orge Will, his­to­rian Doris Kearns Good­win).

Torre emerges as one of the film’s sage touch­stones. Torre has a “vis­ual me­mory of events that put you right back in time,” Novick says. “He has an emo­tional re­la­tion­ship with the game that ra­di­ates out of ev­ery pore.”

The steroid era

Af­ter the orig­i­nal air­ing of “Base­ball,” Burns had no plans to make a se­quel. He be­gan to muse about a fol­low-up when his beloved Bos­ton Red Sox, bereft of a World Se­ries cham­pi­onship since 1918, broke through in 2004. (Novick is a Yan­kees fan, which makes their long part­ner­ship a tri­umph of hard­ball har­mony.)

But it was the is­sue of steroids, Burns said, that “made me want to do an­other film.” The sight of ab­surdly mus­cled ballplay­ers, their XXXXL-size uni­forms strain­ing at the seams, was a video game come to life that al­tered the pitcher-bat­ter dy­namic and for­ever sul­lied the sport’s im­age.

“The first film felt in­com­plete with ev­ery­thing that hap­pened after­ward,” Novick says. “The film ended, but the story of base­ball kept on go­ing.”

Through his pro­duc­tion com­pany, Floren­tine Films, Burns had mapped out a 10year sched­ule of projects with part­ners PBS and Bank of Amer­ica. But when he ap­proached them about do­ing a se­quel, they quickly ac­qui­esced. Af­ter all, “Base­ball” won an Emmy Award and at­tracted 43 mil­lion view­ers, mak­ing it the most­watched se­ries in PBS his­tory.

“Ken’s in­stincts are keen­est when it comes to sto­ry­telling and when there’s an­other chap­ter to tell,” PBS pro­gram­ming chief John Wil­son says. “Base­ball is an on­go­ing cul­tural phe­nom­e­non that con­tin­ues to evolve.”

Pay­ing for it

Dur­ing three years of pro­duc­tion, Burns and Novick leaned heav­ily on edi­tor Craig Mel­lish and writer-pro­ducer David McMahon (who is Burns’ son-in-law). That freed Burns to con­cen­trate on his other job: hus­tling for fund­ing.

Be­sides fi­nanc­ing from BofA and the Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing, Burns cob­bled to­gether the re­ported $5-mil­lion bud­get with con­tri­bu­tions from in­sti­tu­tional and pri­vate fam­ily foun­da­tions.

“He keeps up a blis­ter­ing pace,” McMahon says of Burns, who lives with his wife and their daugh­ter in Walpole, N.H. “Then he comes into the edit­ing room and has the abil­ity to re­main in­tensely fo­cused on the task at hand for how­ever long it takes to get the job done.”

Look­ing ahead

His work­load is daunt­ing. On tap for PBS are multi-part doc­u­men­taries about Pro­hi­bi­tion (2011), which Burns calls “the orig­i­nal cul­ture war,” and the Dust Bowl (2012), which he de­scribes as “the great­est man-made eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter in Amer­i­can his­tory, su­per­im­posed over the worst eco­nomic cat­a­clysm in world his­tory.”

Be­yond that are films about the Roo­sevelts (Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor), the Viet­nam War, the Cen­tral Park jog­ger case and a his­tory of coun­try mu­sic.

Burns doesn’t rule out re­vis­it­ing base­ball again. “When the Chicago Cubs win the World Se­ries,” he quips, re­fer­ring to that team’s cen­tury-long cham­pi­onship drought, “we’ll get started on ‘Eleventh In­ning.’ ”

Jon SooHoo

Los An­ge­les Dodgers

Doc­u­men­tary filmmaker Ken Burns throws out the cer­e­mo­nial first pitch at Dodger Sta­dium at a game last month.

Heinz Kluetmeier Sports Il­lus­trated

Get­ting in some ex­tra swings “The Tenth In­ning” cel­e­brates the na­tional pas­time, steroids, Barry Bonds (above) and all, in this se­quel to Ken Burns’ 1994 doc­u­men­tary, “Base­ball.” Mary McNamara re­views, D9.

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