The Tenth Inning (2010) dir. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
By Alan Bacchus
It’s the baseball playoffs and what a pleasure it was to see former Blue Jay Roy Halladay, the nicest guy in Baseball, throw a no-hitter in his first playoff game. Timed well with this so very exciting time of the season is Ken Burns’ followup to his 1994 documentary series simply titled Baseball.
While that original series was comprehensive, nostalgic and even moving at times, it had the same esoteric tone as his gigantic and also rather longish and... shhh, boring, Civil War series. But for baseball fans like me who were alive and lived through the era of baseball from 1992-2009, this addendum is anything but ‘boring’. It’s the ideal recap of events, issues, heroes and villains of this very dramatic era in America’s National Pastime.
This four hour series is split into two parts, the Top of the Tenth, representing years 1992 – 1999, and the Bottom of the Tenth covering 2000-2009. As one would expect Burns/Novick cover steroids, the strike, the dramatic McGwire/Sosa home run battle of 1998, Bonds’ race for Hank Aaron, the proliferation of Latin and Japanese players in the league and steroids, steroids, steroids and all the drama of actual games and series in between.
But why even discuss Baseball with such analytical attention? Well, it’s not known as the National Past time for nothing. As explained by the journalists interviewed early on in the documentary, there is (or was) a purity to the sport which has remained remarkably constant over its 100 year history. Despite advancements in technology, the game has stayed the same over this period. The rules have barely changed, equipment barely changed, and as such the statistics which drive the study of this game have stayed the same. Therefore players and teams are actually comparable over time, which means whenever a player steps up to the plate he’s instantly etched into a historical context which is always being referenced.
The major issue which threatens this sanctity is covered in a number of chapters of this documentary - steroids. From the McGwire/Sosa race, to Bonds, to the strike and the congressional hearing on doping, steroids is the defining issue of this era.
Burns/Novick are very smart though to look at both sides to every issue. Particularly with steroids, and he opens up the discussion by going back into the past to describe the long history of ‘cheating’ in baseball. Whether it’s the pervasive gambling problems at the beginning of the century to Gaylord Perry’s legendary spitball, Burns succinctly points out that cheating is not new and that there's even some admiration associated with bending the rules.
The filmmakers also smart to limit the amount of TV stock footage to dramatize the stories. Burns still uses photos, zoomed and panned using his ‘Ken Burns’ effect’, to visualize his anecdotes, thus linking it with the aesthetic of his original series.
He also limits the number of interviewees to tells his stories, which has its pros and cons. On one hand, someone like Bob Costas becomes a character in the film just as much as Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds who aren’t interviewed. Which leads to my biggest complaint, the lack of player representation as interviewees. The only players or coaches we see on camera are Ichiro, Joe Torre and Pedro Martinez. Of course, no one other than journalists comments on the steroid issue. At the very least Jose Canseco would have spoken.
And so it’s a distinct journalistic point of view of the game, which is also consistent to Burns’ tone. That is to have it fit in with his themes of Americana, it’s place in American history as a whole and the culture of recreation, sport and entertainment in America.
The Tenth Inning is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.