‘Baseball: The Tenth Inning’: When Baseball Became More than Just a Game

The line that hits the hardest from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Baseball: The Tenth Inning belongs to Pedro Martinez, he of the lifetime .099 batting average. He’s talking about the once legendary, now infamous 1998 homerun race, which was widely credited with rejuvenating baseball after the crippling strike of 1994 that canceled the World Series and alienated millions of fans, though this lifelong fan believes that honor belongs to the night of 6 September 1995, when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak.

In any case, the homerun race of 1998 focused on Roger Maris’ 37-year-old record of 61 homeruns in a single season. The assailants were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who assaulted the record daily and engaged in a kind of one-upmanship with each new game. (Sammy finished with 66, a number that would be boggling had McGwire not belted 70 of his own.)

McGwire and Sosa have since been discredited as steroid users—McGwire has acknowledged as much; Sosa’s name has been named—but at the time no one cared to examine their feat too closely. As the documentary points out, five of McGwire’s final 11 swings of the season resulted in homeruns, which raised eyebrows in the press box, though the story, at the time, died there. The race reached such a fevered pitch, in fact, that players across the sport took notice. How could they not? Martinez, then pitching for the Boston Red Sox, admits that after his own games, which were far away from St. Louis or Chicago, he would retire to the clubhouses and ask, “How many did they hit today?” This is where he delivers the money line: He cocks his head, smirks, and says, “Innocence is a beautiful thing.”

How you respond to Martinez’s statement goes a long way toward determining how you will respond to Burns and Novick’s documentary, a sequel to their nine-volume 1994 offering, Baseball. If revisiting that “innocent” period kindles in you feelings of nostalgia for a time when ignorance was bliss, then you’ll probably be OK. Burns and Novick don’t completely sidestep the issue of performance enhancing drugs as they recount the multiple homerun chases the dominate these two discs—McGwire’s and, in the early aughts, Barry Bonds deposing both Big Mac as the single-season champion and, ultimately, Hank Aaron as the all-time king—but, particularly with that summer of 1998, their retelling captures the magic of that era, untainted, for the most part, by the reality of the situation.

If, on the other hand, that innocence of which Martinez speaks has spoiled over the past dozen years into so much anger, bitterness, and resentment that you can’t even completely shake it when Roy Halladay pitches the second no-hitter in post-season history, then you may have a less forgiving view of Baseball: The Tenth Inning. I think it’s pretty clear on which side of the baseline I fall. For most of these two discs—called, appropriately enough, “Top of the Tenth” and “Bottom of the Tenth”—I was reminded of Johnny Rotten’s classic line during the Sex Pistols’ (then) final show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in 1978: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Why, yes, Johnny, as a matter of fact, I have. Why would I want to experience that sensation again?

I’m familiar enough with Burns’ work that his distinctive style, which I once found invigorating, has moved right past comfortable and into the realm of stale for me. Let’s face it, the technique of either pushing in or pulling back from a portion of a still photograph that you might otherwise miss works best in black and white. There’s something about such images—so often accompanied by a wry or a historically ironic or a heartbreaking voiceover—that gives life to lives that are so long ago gone. The effect just isn’t the same when the reference is to, say, Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, a moment in time that hardly needs to be revived because we’ve never let it die.

In addition, the latest installment of Baseball covers an era in which so many of the pictures actually moved, which neutralizes Burns’ greatest strength as a documentarian, namely his ability to weave a robust narrative from a series of stills. Parts of Baseball: The Tenth Inning borrow so heavily from the original network broadcasts that I felt like I was watching an official highlight video. The segments pertaining to the mid-90’s reemergence of the Yankees are especially guilty of this cut-and-paste approach, and no, I’m not just saying that because, as a rabid Atlanta Braves fan, I am still pissed that Wohlers threw Leyritz a slider rather than the heat.

To their credit, Burns and Novick do sit down with a few people who have actually played the game. In addition to the aforementioned Pedro Martinez, Joe Torre, Felipe Alou, Omar Vizquel, and Ichiro all chime in. However, as is typical of Burns’ work, this is a tale told, for the most part, by academics. It belongs, if not to the luxury boxes, then at least to the press boxes. Howard Bryant, Selena Roberts, Roger Angell, Jon Miller, George Will, Thomas Boswell, Tom Verducci, and Doris Kearns Godwin. Apparently these are the keepers of baseball’s treasured history.

I, for one, wouldn’t mind hearing from the guy at the corner bar. I have yet to see The War, Burns’ treatment of World War II, and I’m sure he had to interview some grunts in order to tell that story, but otherwise I am beginning to wonder if he has ever sat across from someone who didn’t clear six figures a year. I realize the academic bent is what you sign up for with Burns, but with the exception of the 2002 All-Star Game, there are no ties in baseball. Do we really need to have so many on the screen?

I appreciate that I’m coming across as a curmudgeon (I lack only a “back in my day” to make it official), so I should say that there are parts of Baseball: The Tenth Inning that I enjoyed very much. The footage of Latin American boys playing stickball in the street and the chapter on “baseball schools” in places like the Dominican Republic, which segues nicely into the emergence of semi-pro leagues in Brooklyn and the Bronx, is good stuff (though the movie Sugar, by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, is better).

Some of the images, in motion though they may be, really do leave you awestruck: Ichiro beating out a routine groundball to short or throwing out a runner at third from right field on the fly. I rewound a Ken Griffey Jr. homerun a few times, even if the crack of the bat was so pure that it had to have been dubbed in, and that image of him running back to the infield after making a leaping catch in center really is one for the ages. He exudes such enthusiasm, as if his abilities amaze even himself.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I latched onto Ichiro and Junior, two players who have avoided the stench of cheating (if not napping during a game, right Junior?), though if the Steroid Era has taught us anything, it’s that everyone is a suspect.

In this case the extras are less “bonus” than “more”. There are interviews with Burns and Novick, segments that didn’t make the final cut, and miscellaneous thoughts by the pundits. I rarely like hearing an artist talk about his or her own work, and I like it even less when it’s Ken Burns. Maybe it’s because he’s so synonymous with public television, but every time I hear him talk I feel like I’m being subjected to a pledge drive. The man is just so darned earnest.

I don’t hold the same grudge against the other features. I’m a sucker for stories that border on the mythical about the likes of Greg Maddux, Derek Jeter, and Cal Ripken, so even if the experts have never had their hands sullied by pine tar, I still enjoy their tallish tales. George Will relates one story about Maddux letting Jeff Bagwell hit a homerun in a blowout just so he could set him up later in the year. After two drinks, I’ll be telling that one to anyone who will listen.

The best special features are the ones that are the least improved, as it were: The night at Fenway Park that allows the images and the natural sound to tell the story, the 90 seconds of kids playing ball in Central Park that not even the precious piano rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” can ruin. Never mind 70, 73, and whatever Barry finished with for his career. These images—and not the WWE-like numbers—leave the lasting impression.

Just baseball. No talking heads, no controversy, and damn sure no allegations of poetry. Just the game. That’s how it was back in my day.

There. I said it. The transformation is complete.

RATING 5 / 10