[29 September 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Baseball has an ugly face, that’s the business part.
“There’s something that happens on the field that’s like poetry, like ballet,” says Gerald Early. “The remarkable thing about the game,” he goes on, “is how beautiful it is, despite all the ugliness that might be around it at times. It’s just a beautiful thing.”
Speaking near the beginning of The Tenth Inning‘s second half, premiering on PBS 29 September, Early describes his love for baseball is deeply personal, based on his childhood experiences and particular plays etched into memory, a concept illustrated as he speaks by still photos of bodies in mid-air, strained and contorted, and for that instant of a play, perfect. For Early, who so appreciates such individual acts of grace, the “ugliness” is around the game, as opposed to inherent in it. It’s a view that helps him to love the game still, even knowing about the Steroid Era, recurrent labor disputes, costly stadiums, underpaid facility crews, and exploitative farm systems.
Early’s dilemma is at the center of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s four-hour follow-up to 1994’s Baseball. And it remains unresolved, in part because baseball is, as Keith Olbermann noted at the start of the first part of The Tenth Inning, a game immersed in its own history. This makes for at least two sorts of fans, those who remember and can rhapsodize over plays, like Early, and those who know stats. The documentary makes use of fans who are also players, reporters, and historians, an assembly of men—and Selena Roberts and Doris Kearns Goodwin (note to Burns: girls like baseball too)—who set about here pondering their devotion to a sport that has disappointed them repeatedly.
Recent disappointments loom large in The Tenth Inning, which means to look at what’s happened in baseball since Baseball. By turns treacly and rapturous, pedestrian and insightful, the documentary submits that, as Howard Bryant observes, “Most people have found a way to make their peace with the sport they love.” Still, the history rankles. And here, too much of it is noted only briefly.
The 19 ballparks built during the ‘90s warrant just a couple of lines, observations of their beauty (at least those taking their cue from Camden Yards) and, oh yes, their replacement of “inexpensive seats with luxury boxes.” No mention is made of the billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, or the increased revenues for owners per se.
One reason for that increase, which the documentary does note, sort of, is the turn to “cheap labor,” namely, players drawn from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. The Tenth Inning allows that Latin and Asian players “transform the game,” without much attention to the economics (a few generic-seeming scenes show poverty and young recruits in the DR, as illustrations of the hard lives that produced Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa). Instead, it offers designated representatives Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki, revered and interviewed (“For me,” says the consistently amazing Ichiro, “baseball is what made me”), and George Will offers a pithy if nonsensical assessment: “They’re just another wave of immigration, if you will, of making baseball a world sport.”
That world sport is also a global business, as the documentary doesn’t quite underline in its section on the 1994 walkout. George Will submits it was a logical result of baseball’s antiquated economic model, “utterly unsuited to the modern age,” with owners “unreconciled to the existence of the union.” When the owners chose Bud Selig (“one of their own,” intones narrator Keith David) as commissioner in 1992, the dispute evolved predictably, but the documentary, rather than even mentioning what’s at stake for either side, offers an angry fan’s view, titling the segment “Billionaires vs. Millionaires” (see also: the current discord between the NFL and the NFLPA).
When the walkout ended, David narrates, “Baseball had learned its lesson. From now on, it would honor its players and celebrate its most defining moments.” Except that it doesn’t.
After the walkout, The Tenth Inning focuses on the industry’s efforts to recover from a 20% drop in attendance in 1995. Cal Ripken helps, as does the Yankees’ dominance under Joe Torre (this last inspiring equal parts love and hate), and of course, the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race of 1998 generates unprecedented interest and revenues, as well as a seething rage in Barry Bonds, whose “outsized talent and… outsized baggage” make him the documentary’s go-to example of what’s wrong with baseball, compared repeatedly to “great” sportsmen like Ken Griffey, Jr., Derek Jeter, and Ichiro.
The Tenth Inning‘s second part invokes 9/11 as yet another impetus, for another kind of recovery, for which baseball serves as a “welcome distraction.” Even as doping is exposed during the 2000s, David narrates, “Through it all, the game continued to astonish, to rise above its own scandals, and to reflect in good times and bad, complicated country that had created it.” Such soaring language is typical of Burns’ documentaries. (Let’s agree that the images of the game, as Early says, provide their own poetry, and don’t need such clumsy efforts to inflate.)
In fact, baseball’s capacity to “distract”—to enthrall and bedazzle and inspire—is illustrated throughout The Tenth Inning, in long minutes devoted to memorable playoff games (some TV footage running unencumbered by extra music or instructional voiceover). These sequences remind you why you watch baseball, why it’s so alive when it’s live. When at last Jose Canseco publishes Juiced in 2005 (the film doesn’t name the book, and observes Canseco from something of a distance), the game changes again, as reporters and others remember the Androstenedione spotted by journalist Steve Wilstein in McGwire’s locker back in 1998.
The documentary underlines that Wilstein was roundly “vilified” for his efforts to investigate and expose the problem everyone could see in front of them. As Bob Costas puts it, the experts and fans (and owners and managers) so attentive to every detail of players’ swings and throwing motions made a choice to not see steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs: “They didn’t notice a damn thing when guys showed up looking like they’d been inflated with bicycle pumps.” By the time the Mitchell Report is published in 2007 (an event noted exceedingly briefly here), so many horses are out of the barn that those fans invested in baseball history can’t possibly reconcile the numbers, the performances, the loss of trust.
Howard Bryant, author of The Last Hero: The Life of Henry Aaron, lays out the dilemma embodied by Bonds as he pursued Aaron’s home runs record in 2007. Even as fans boo and cheer, as Selig and Aaron avoid direct contact with the toxic Bonds, the countdown keeps on. When Bonds hits his 756th home run, then insists, “The record is not tainted, at all, period,” Bryant says, “I felt nothing.” Troubled by this, he laments “all that had been lost.” And he goes on to ask,
Is it possible to have a renaissance and a calamity at the same time? It all depends on what your barometer is, what is your measure? If your measure is money and only money, then yeah, it’s possible, because people in this game made more money than ever. But if your barometer is something more than that, if your barometer is integrity, is in having people look at you and believing in your sport, not just going to the game, but believing in your sport, then it’s not possible.
Bryant isn’t talking about a loss of innocence, or draping baseball in a nostalgic gauze, as The Tenth Inning tends to do. And of course, few fans or scholars would pretend that baseball has ever been a wholly pure enterprise, that other types of cheating have not afflicted it over its long history. “Believing in your sport,” though, is a different problem. It’s not that the sport can’t recover, that plays can’t be made, that the game can’t thrill and enchant fans again… and again.
What’s at stake here, in this desire for belief, is structure—political, moral, and, too odiously and obviously, financial. If players like Bonds (or even Roger Clemons, who gets off easy in The Tenth Inning, with a few shots of him pitching and just a nod to his association with Brian McNamee) bear the burden of “all that has been lost,” if managers and owners, journalists and consumers don’t take visible, substantive responsibility as well, that corrupt and corrupting structure remains in place. And it makes the “beautiful thing” all the more precious and all the more precarious.