Baseball: The Tenth Inning
Top of the Tenth (1992-1999)/Bottom of the Tenth (1999-2009) (PBS/Paramount Home Video-2010)
In the early 1990s, documentarian Ken Burns became a PBS sensation through his acclaimed documentary series on The Civil War. As the follow-up, he decided that he wanted to look back at something even more American than the war of the states.
In 1994 he returned with a 21-hour documentary series on the American pastime, Baseball. The series was another huge hit – a sprawling and wide-ranging look at over a century of the sport (although the series only covered through 1992). In fact, the series started airing soon after the sport became embroiled in one of the biggest turmoils in the storied history of the sport – the acrimonious players’ strike which led to the World Series being cancelled for the only time in the history of the sport.
Sixteen years later, the constantly evolving game has gone through some huge changes – including having two of its most storied records toppled (one of them three times!), a huge scandal that embroiled some of the biggest names in the sport and one of the most storied franchises in the sport finally breaking a generations-old championship drought.
Therefore Burns and partner Lynn Novick slipped back into the editing booth to cobble together a four-hour continuation of their work. Broken up into two parts – “The Top of the Tenth” covers 1992 to 1999 and “The Bottom of the Tenth” continues to the end of the 2009 season – Baseball: The Tenth Inning tries its best to make sense of what has happened in the sport in the last couple of decades.
Of course in a sport which has generated tens of thousands of hours of video in the past eighteen years is somewhat difficult to condense into just four hours.
Burns does the best that he can, however a huge amount of this program essentially boiled down to three huge stories which Burns and Novick have decided pretty much define the two decades. These stories are the strike and its aftermath, the home run explosion and subsequent steroid scandal and the explosion of foreign players in the Major Leagues.
The most interesting is the steroid story, with Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire’s meteoric rises and falls providing a fascinating reminder of a not-that-long-ago era. Also of interest is the severe backlash the league suffered after the 1994 strike – and the obvious surprise of both the owners and the Players’ Association about the vitriol of the fans.
The explosion of Latin American and Japanese players also makes for some intriguing viewing; particularly interesting are interviews with Dominican pitcher Pedro Martinez and Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki.
Then, the final two hour episode also does rather in-depth breakdowns of several classic playoff series (many of which feature the Yankees and/or Red Sox). This is all fun enough to see, however it is also nothing that you can’t see on ESPN Classic on any night of the week. Plus, it sort skews the importance of the playoffs, intimating that little of worth happens in regular season.
Periodically Burns and Novick try to give historical perspective to the game. This is particularly effective in a section that looks at how the major leagues responded to the World Trade Center attacks of 2001 – leading to a touching anecdote by MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann, who recounts having a New York City cop discuss the importance of the sport as a distraction while standing in the rubble of the Twin Towers. Other historical connections are a bit more of a leap – was the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run race of 1998 really a needed respite for America to get over the Monica Lewinsky scandal?
Still, Baseball: The Tenth Inning provides a relatively good thumbnail sketch of the state of the sport in the early 21st Century.
However, I have the same problem with The Tenth Inning that I had with the earlier, longer series.
Ken Burns seems to hate my favorite team, the Phillies.
Even worse, he ignores them. The Phillies are not mentioned at all until the last five minutes, where they quickly show a clip of the team winning the 2008 World Series and a couple of short clips of them in their unsuccessful attempt to recapture the championship against the Evil Empire. The whole thing lasts about a minute. Otherwise, the only times that the Phillies are shown is when they are striking out to a great pitcher (usually on the Braves) or giving up a long homer.
I can even understand the lack of the Phillies in the first episode which covered 1992 to 1999. The team was mostly a train wreck in the 90s, though they did have one huge year and went to one of the most dramatic World Series of the decade. (Burns does show the famous Joe Carter homer off Mitch Williams to win the 1993 series at the very beginning of the first episode, but he does it out of context so that if you weren’t a hardcore fan you wouldn’t know what game that was.)
The lack of Phils in the second episode is much more problematic. The team only has the best record in the second half of the decade, has won its division four straight times (in fairness, only three in the timeline of the documentary) and is the odds-on favorite to return to a third straight World Series. I think they deserve at least a few minutes and one talking head.
I went through enough losing over the years that I am sensitive to it when the Phils deserve some notice, but in Baseball, Burns shunned the Whiz Kids and the 70s-80s perennial winner – and now that they have the best team in franchise history the Phils still can’t get the guy to pay any attention.
Okay, I know that is a personal gripe. I realize that there are thirty teams in MLB and they can’t all be covered equally. However, it does point out the biggest problem with this project. In four hours of film, I would say at least 50% of the time is spent on the Yankees, the Red Sox and Braves, with another 25% to the Giants, Cardinals and the Cubs. (And honestly, beyond Bobby Bonds, Mark McQwire and Sammy Sosa, those last three teams would have barely been present either.)
I mean, I get it. Bobby Bonds was the greatest player of his generation as well as the biggest scandal – however, we keep returning to Bonds’ well-documented story at the expense of all the others who played in Major League Baseball over a time period of eighteen years.
Lots of fans for lots of teams like the Phils are going to feel cheated. Specifically, the Mets, Dodgers, Reds, White Sox, Angels, Rockies, Marlins, Twins and Rays are all teams which have had great success in the past two decades and are barely mentioned. And perennial losers like the Royals, Pirates, Expos/Nationals, Brewers and Tigers… fuggedaboutit!
Burns points out that the smaller market teams feel that the Yanks and the Red Sox have an unfair advantage in both money and media attention – and then he goes and proves the point by lavishing yet more media attention on these two overexposed teams.
However, even with this bias, Burns is a strong enough filmmaker and the subject is so ceaselessly interesting that Baseball: The Tenth Inning is never less than entertaining, and often fascinating.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 1, 2010.