Tom Shales on Ken Burns's latest baseball film, 'The Tenth Inning'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

To have finished watching all 18 hours of Ken Burns's 1994 documentary "Baseball" and still be aching to know more about the game and its history would be like getting up from Thanksgiving dinner and making a beeline for Applebee's. Has anyone ever declared a Burns film to be "too short"? Not any more likely than somebody complaining about the lightning pace or surplus of special effects.

But "The Tenth Inning," a follow-up by Burns and Lynn Novick to the original epic, isn't as excessive in length as "Baseball" or "Jazz" were. In fact, at four hours over two nights (starting Tuesday on PBS), it comes in at maybe only 45 minutes overlong. The film is made skillfully enough that it could conceivably captivate both the most obsessive baseball fan and somebody who doesn't give a hoot but has a healthy curiosity -- and the gratuitous extra minutes aren't by any means intolerable.

Your degree of interest might depend on where you live, since "Tenth Inning" tends to favor the Northeastern United States and spends relatively little time west of the Mississippi. Especially in the second half (cutely called "The Bottom of the Tenth"), Burns and Novick concentrate on New York, Boston and Baltimore to a degree that seems provincially East-Coasty.

Of course you can't tell the story of baseball since 1994, which is the documentary's goal, without telling the story of the New York Yankees, and you can't talk much about the Yankees without bringing up the team's famous rivalry with the Red Sox. How much this will enthrall people in Chicago, Los Angeles or Denver is problematic.

The San Francisco Giants made the cut mainly because Barry Bonds played there for a stretch that spanned the 20th and 21st centuries, and Bonds's story is one of the major threads running through the documentary: his love of baseball as a kid and as the son of cantankerous player Bobby Bonds; the problems with booze that foreshadowed Barry's difficulties with arguably more troublesome substances later in his career; and an unforgiving philosophy of life, learned from his dad and boiled down to, basically, "Don't count on anybody else for anything."

Bonds emerges as a poignant, haunted figure as the film wends its way from '94 to the near-present, and herewith a caution: You're in for some slow wending. But the story of the young man who went from sensation to culprit, and whose setting of a new home run record was tainted by the steroid abuse scandals, proves resonant and emblematic as Burns tells it.

Precious few actual players are among the experts assembled to comment; Pedro Martinez is the one seen most often. Many other interested parties who pop up were also part of the original nine-"inning" documentary of '94: the great sportscaster Bob Costas, who certainly hasn't aged; historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; baseball commissioner Bud Selig; MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann; Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell; and pundit George F. Will, who surprisingly quotes Mae West.

Burns's mixture of vintage film, artfully shot (and lit) interview footage and stunning still photos of American ballparks and players is masterfully done, and it does seem that the soundtrack is less reliant on sleepy, solemn melodies than is usually the case. There is a rather strange funky-folksy solo of the National Anthem during the eight-minute prologue and some heartening clips of the late Harry Caray leading a chorus of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" as he did about 10,000 times in his felicitous career.

Is baseball all we are as a people and all we ever will be? Olbermann says he takes edification from knowing that the game he sits down to watch today is the same one he would have seen in 1860 (albeit with more pyrotechnics and fancier scoreboards). Contemplating the sad trajectory taken by Bonds, writer Marcus Breton says, "I think we got to know him too well." And comedian Chris Rock asks rhetorically, when the subject turns to chemical performance-enhancers, "Who wouldn't take a pill to make more money at their job? . . . You would take the pill; you just would."

Baseball has been through many a crisis since 1994, including of course the fan-enraging strike that resulted in cancellation of the '94 World Series (this segment is titled "Millionaires vs. Billionaires," i.e., Players vs. Owners). These were the game's "Dark Ages," says the sonorous narrator, actor Keith David, but the game would emerge stronger than ever, and after a kind of unorganized boycott by fans (some of whom put "On Strike" signs on empty stadium seats), the people returned to baseball in greater droves than before.

It's good to hear immigration spoken of in positive terms; it has certainly been positive for baseball, what with the importation of brilliant young players from Latin America and Japan. The rise of the New York Yankees, after a long fallow period, is convincingly made to seem a national and not just a regional matter. After 9/11, of course, everybody rooted for nearly everything about New York, baseball teams included. Earlier, during a far less significant crisis, baseball "distracted" Americans from bad news about their president, Bill Clinton, and his eventual confession of adultery.

And yet there were times when Americans needed a distraction from the troubles afflicting baseball.

Is it "the best game . . . ever invented," as is stated in the prologue to the series? Well -- name a better one. Certainly not football, with its frequent huddles, fits-and-starts rhythm and tacky, gladiator getups. Burns does at times risk lionizing the sport to death, making it out to be so terribly significant and rich with meaning that he threatens to stomp all the fun out of it. Sports writer Mike Barnicle tells a touching story about his 11-year-old son's reaction to a loss by the home team, but then Barnicle starts waxing sloppy over the sport again and you may want to run screaming for the kitchen.

"The Tenth Inning" artfully updates the original documentary, but if this game goes even one more extra inning, let's hope it's called on account of "Enough, Already."

Baseball: The Tenth Inning

premieres on PBS Tuesday at 8 p.m. and continues on Wednesday at 8 p.m.

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