Under the Radar

Review: Ken Burns Likes Baseball More Than He Hates Steroids


Baseball: The Tenth Inning (Directed by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick)

What happens when a Ken Burns documentary moves away from the mists of the past (The Civil War and The War) and starts describing events that almost everyone watching the film lived through and most likely remembers? Will the reflective style still work when slow camera pans are replaced with video from events that many of us watched live?

Baseball: The Tenth Inning (out now on DVD and Blu-ray) covers the years 1992-1990, acting as a 4-hour sequel to 1994's acclaimed 18 1/2-hour PBS series Baseball. Burns isn't afraid to take a side on the controversies that have  the sport over the last two decades, s how you respond to The Tenth Inning depends a lot on whether you agree with Rick's take on recent history.

If you're a Braves fan or a Yankees fan, you'll definitely enjoy the film's depiction of each team's championship runs. Burns & Novick focus especially on Atlanta's trio of Hall of Fame pitchers (Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz) and on Derek Jeter's role as the anchor of modern Yankee success. As a lifelong Braves fan and a hardcore Yankee hater, I also have to admit they make a great case for recognizing just how great those New York teams might have been.

The Red Sox story may be another matter entirely and Burns pretty much outs himself as a Boston fan. I found the extremely long section about Boston's seemingly neverending quest to follow up its 1918 World Series win to be the most powerful part of the entire 10-inning enterprise, but I'm the kind of person who picked a college partially because of its proximity to Fenway Park. If you've grown to hate Boston fans over the last decade, you might not be moved by the testimony of those redeemed by the 2004 World Series victory.

As viewers of the earlier film might remember, Burns has a lot of sympathy for the players union and not so much for the owners. That's why it's a bit of a surprise to see him offer equal blame to both for the 1994 strike and subsequent loss of the World Series. Future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor makes a cameo as the judge who ends the strike in March 1995 when she declares that the owners have been negotiating in bad faith.

Things get really complicated when Burns & Novick use the Barry Bonds story as the prism through which to tell the story of the controversy over steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. They have a lot of sympathy for Barry's belief that baseball mistreated his father Bobby Bonds and use that resentment to temper judgment of his adult behavior.

After revisiting the long history of cheating in baseball, they kick off with the 1998 home run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and how it overshadowed Bonds' accomplishment as the first player to have both 400 career steals and 400 career home runs. They detail the next decade as baseball slowly came to terms with the use of performance-enhancing drugs, blaming equally the players' union's reluctance to submit to testing, the owner's willingness to look the other way and the hard-to-fathom blindness of the media to the issue.

You definitely get the sense that telling this story is more of an obligation than a cause and that both filmmakers see steroids as a natural consequence of the competitive demands of professional sport. Of course, they let moralists like Bob Costas condemn the era but The Tenth Inning's directors seem to believe that Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle would've had no problem shooting chemicals into their butts if they'd only had the opportunity.

Other subjects get their due. There's a passing interest in the rise of statistical analysis, an excellent passage on the rise of Latin American players during the 1990s and a great tribute to baseball's reaction to the trauma of 9/11.

Fans seem to have moved on from the "steroid era" far more than the media's talking heads and the angry old baseball writers. Burns and Novick dutifully detail the facts of what happened  but secretly believe that any old August game between two last-place teams is infinitely more compelling.

Some viewers are going to take offense at such as relaxed view of "cheating," but the filmmakers' detailed knowledge and love of baseball's 150-year history puts it all into context. Baseball has survived crisis before and always comes back to prosper. Why should this time be any different?

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