Flix love the long ball: Burns takes on home-run chase
BOSTON – When Ken Burns decided to update his epic documentary “Baseball” to chronicle the tumultuous developments since it first aired in 1994, he knew that he didn’t want to make a movie of the Mitchell Report.
Instead, Burns and co-producer Lynn Novick tried to bring Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and their pursuit of the sport’s hallowed home run records to viewers as fans experienced them at the time.
“If you did the home run chase from the perspective of what we know in 2010, it would be joyless,” Burns said Wednesday before “The Tenth Inning” premiered in a Boston theater. “But we all know how exciting that was. We wanted to relive some of that, but at the same time give equal time to the other revelations.”
In a four-hour miniseries scheduled to debut on PBS next Tuesday and Wednesday nights, Burns and Novick take “Baseball” into extra innings, updating the original 18 1/2-hour documentary on the first 150 years of the sport’s history to include the successes and scandals since 1994.
“The Tenth Inning” details the influx of Latin American and Asian players, baseball’s help in healing – or at least distracting – the country from the Sept. 11 attacks, the rise of a new Yankees’ dynasty and the Red Sox cathartic championship in 2004. It contains mini-profiles of Cal Ripken Jr., Ichiro Suzuki and new statistical fads such as VORP.
And then there’s steroids.
Relying on deft foreshadowing, Burns and Novick are content for much of the film to hint at the crisis to come without getting bogged down in what Novick called “the steady drumbeat of steroid revelations, one disappointment after another.” But make no mistake: there is no glossing over the way performance-enhancing drugs dominated the decade.
“We realize that knowing what we know now is sometimes a disservice to giving the full life and humanity to the people of the moment. And for that home run chase, it was exciting,” Burns said. “We didn’t want that to be sucked out, and so we realized, in good time, this will be revealed, and why don’t we learn it in the way that America in general learned it.”
“You don’t make a film as a fan,” Burns said, “you make a film as a filmmaker.”
More than 43 million viewers tuned in for the original – the most-watched program in PBS history – eager for any kind of baseball at a time when major league players were on strike during a labor dispute that would lead to cancellation of the 1994 World Series.
The enjoyment for them was in seeing things for the first time, whether it was archival footage of Babe Ruth at play or the storytelling of Buck O’Neill that brought the Negro Leagues to life. (“The Tenth Inning” is dedicated to O’Neill, who stole the show in the original documentary and died in 2006.)
The challenge the filmmakers face in the update was in presenting Ichiro or Ripken or Roger Clemens or Sammy Sosa to an audience that already knew what happened and, in some cases, would just as soon forget.
“We wanted to take familiar events that we’ve all lived through and tried to bring some extra dimension to them, and to tell it from a perspective that doesn’t betray what we know from the present,” Burns said. “We all go to Ford’s Theater thinking that maybe this time Booth won’t shoot him. Good history is always being on the edge of your chair, thinking it might not turn out the way that you know that it did.”
“The Tenth Inning” opens – after the requisite “Star-Spangled Banner” and title sequence – with Bonds as a skinny Pirates star, failing to throw Sid Bream out at the plate in the 1992 NL championship series as the Atlanta Braves go on to the World Series instead of Pittsburgh.
We also see Bonds as McGwire and Sammy Sosa, both less talented but better-loved, captivate the nation while chasing Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs. Bonds bulks up, and so do his home run numbers, and soon he has surpassed not just McGwire’s new single-season mark but Hank Aaron’s career total of 755 as well.
That’s the advantage Burns and Novick have in dealing with the more modern era: The viewer already knows, without being told, about the allegations against Bonds and Clemens. (Viewers will also chuckle at the reference to disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, lashing out at Cubs fan Steve Bartman for interfering with a foul ball).
When they show photographs of McGwire and Jose Canseco together, it’s understood that they will both eventually leave the sport in shame, destined to be the stars of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell’s investigation into steroid abuse in baseball.
“Having dealt with more than 150 years of baseball history, we tried to put it in a little bit of perspective,” Burns said. “In my mind, this is not the worst baseball scandal ever.”
For Burns, that would be the exclusion of black ballplayers in the first half of the century, before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier – a major theme of the original documentary. (It also chronicled widespread gambling and cheating in the sport’s early days, culminating in the throwing of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox – also worse than steroids, in Burns’ opinion).
Robinson’s arrival opened the door for more blacks, and for players from Latin America and Asia. It also led to a change in national attitudes.
It’s not clear that steroids will have the same positive effect, but Burns is hopeful.
“Jackie Robinson showed baseball to be the meritocracy that American wants to be,” Burns said. “Baseball has always been a change agent.”