In 1994, PBS premiered Ken Burns’ epic documentary “Baseball.” Little did those involved know that the grand old game of baseball was about to go through some seismic changes. Now, Burns has decided to pitch an extra inning, giving us an important postscript to his historic series. “Baseball: The Tenth Inning” is no Minor League effort, either. Though it begins in the 1990s, long after the legends of the sport had been well-established, it features some of the most gripping events in baseball history.
As even casual baseball fans knows, the ’90s were when America’s sport changed—and not necessarily for the better. The ’90s are noted for the birth of several Major League scandals, including the disastrous player’s strike, the infamous home run race and those sport-tarnishing steroid allegations. These would seem like particularly dark days for baseball fans—times at best forgotten or at worst the catalyst for wholesale fan abandonment. But Burns is no hater. Even in the darkest of days, he carries the torch. Even at the lowest of moments, he finds nobility, sportsmanship and honor. And in those instances when there is clearly no positive moral to the story, he finds drama on par with the best tragedy Hollywood has to offer.
At first, it’s a little disconcerting to see Burns operating in the modern era. Photographs that are in color and images that actually move are a far cry from his stolid, trademark “The Civil War”-style of filmmaking. But the sonorous voice of narrator Keith David (The Thing, Pitch Black) is there to remind us we’re in mellow Ken Burns territory. Oddly, Burns doesn’t interview many players. He relies mostly on well-spoken writers (George Will) and sportscasters (Bob Costas, of course) to tell the tale. Keith Olbermann is about as colorful as the commentators get here. There are a tiny handful of players and coaches (the Yankees’ Joe Torre, for example). But Burns’ approach is largely academic. He’d rather have George Will give a grandiloquent speech about the American nature of winning and losing than have Mark McGwire tearfully plead the Fifth. Some may find the approach stuffy—but if you’ve sat through previous Burns documentaries, you’ll know what you’re getting into.
Clocking in at a mere four hours (the original “Baseball” was 18 1/2), “The Tenth Inning” zips along at an absorbing pace. In this concentrated form, it makes for a thought-provoking overview of modern baseball. On this roller-coaster ride through the close of the 20th century, the highs are stellar (beloved “Iron Man” Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2,632-game record for consecutive games played) and the lows are abysmal (the bitter blowback against players and owners in the wake of the aborted ’94 season). In retrospect (and under the lens of Burns’ camera), it’s easy to see why the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa became so emblematic of the sport, grabbing headlines and mesmerizing fans even as it tore the sport down to its very core. Baseball may not be a perfect game, but it is always perfectly American.