All the drama and excitement of a pennant race
It’s the rare documentary that requires a sequel, especially if the original film was done by Ken Burns. Any man who can, and did, put together a six-part, 12-hour series about our national parks is clearly not someone constrained by current quick-hit convention. Instead, Burns is a standard in his own right, the fat lady of documentary film — whether it’s the Civil War, jazz or Lewis and Clark, when he’s done it, it tends to stay done.
Unless, of course, it’s baseball, a subject so emblematic of our collective hope and heartbreak that it remains the only multi-billion-industry actually deserving of a rhapsodic soundtrack. A strike, a doping crisis, the resurrection of two major teams, not to mention the rise and fall of a full constellation of stars has occurred since his much-acclaimed nine-part “Baseball” aired in 1994, and so Burns and co-director Lynn Novick decided it was time to go into extra innings.
And I really wanted to write this without resorting to baseball metaphors. You see how hard it is.
“The Tenth Inning” picks up where “Baseball” left off, using Barry Bonds as an entrance to an era in which money, pride, star power, political struggles and steroid use would define baseball. Godson of Willie Mays, son of Bobby Bonds, Barry grew up knowing the price of greatness, though it did not keep Barry from wanting to outshine them all. His story, with its arc of rare talent tainted by a relentless drive for recognition during a time when baseball appeared to go nuclear, is a fine throughline for a two-part, four-hour film.
Burns has not come to bury baseball but to praise it. He relies not only on sports journalists, including Bob Costas and Keith Olbermann, but also George Will and Doris Kearns Goodwin to do it. (Kearns Goodwin is, like Burns himself, a Red Sox fan.) All speak of baseball with a poetry and depth of feeling more commonly heard these days in connection with vampire love and really loyal dogs.
In Burns’ world, baseball players remain heroes. The players’ strike comes down heavy on the owners, and disgusted fans quickly turn to true blue greats like Baltimore’s Cal Ripken Jr. Any thought that baseball has been replaced in the American heart is countered by images of children devoted to the game thanks in part to the rise of players like Ichiro Suzuki and Pedro Martinez.
Even the steroid scandal is presented in a partly sympathetic light with adulatory clip after clip of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run battle shored up by commentators who are either ambivalent — “I’m not here to tear down baseball,” said one sportswriter describing his reluctance to report on steroid use — or supportive. “ Who in the whole country wouldn’t take a pill to make more money at their job?” asked Chris Rock.
And for every patch of tarnish there are many moments of pure dazzle. Joe Torre bringing the Yankees back as a powerhouse, the curse-defying World Series wins of the Boston Red Sox and the solid post-strike success of Ripken Jr. are all told with heartwarming, heart-stopping film clips.
It is impossible to watch the gravity-defying catches, the Olympian throws, and the hits soaring into the stands and not be moved. Watching professional athletes in the moments of their glory is a wonderful thing; knowing what was at stake makes it even more moving.
If nothing else, Angelenos can be grateful that Burns wrapped filming before the McCourt divorce hit. With the exception of Manny Ramirez, the Dodgers have a lowprofile in “The Tenth Inning,” and for this we give thanks.
PRE-SCANDAL: Mark McGwire fans wear his number in 1998, when he hit a then-record 70 home runs.