All the drama and ex­cite­ment of a pen­nant race

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - MARY Mc NA­MARA TELE­VI­SION CRITIC mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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.

Elsa

PRE-SCAN­DAL: Mark McGwire fans wear his num­ber in 1998, when he hit a then-record 70 home runs.

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