Resetting the conversation on baseball and steroids


With the unveiling of The Tenth Inning on PBS this week, filmmaker Ken Burns did something he has never done before to one of his acclaimed documentaries: He produced an update.

Major League Baseball has birthed 15 additional seasons since Burns created the original 18-hour work titled Baseball, which turned out to be a major cultural event viewed by 43 million people in 1994.

Spread out over two nights and four hours, The Tenth Inning focuses on themes (steroids, immigration), teams (Yankees vs. Red Sox), and key events (1994 player's strike, aftermath of 9/11). Also of particular enjoyment was Burns' exploration of the impact that foreign-born players (Japanese, Latin American) have had on the game. Through it all, Burns reaffirms our national love affair with the beauty and drama of baseball.

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Critics rightly note the bias toward East Coast teams. When asked why he made The Tenth Inning, Burns joked that it was because of Boston's 2004 World Series win. Well, Burns is a lifelong Red Sox fan, and the chef determines the ingredients.

Burns overly leans on interviews with baseball journalists (Howard Bryant, Tom Verducci, Bob Costas) and intellectuals (George Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin) to the near-exclusion of actual baseball players. Though I wouldn't have wanted any of the former taken out, I could have lived with another hour of film to gain more face-time with the players.

Because the theme of steroids dominated the past fifteen years of baseball, it dominates The Tenth Inning too. After the 1994 strike, baseball needed "saving" by the likes of Cal Ripken's clean-living longevity (1995) and Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home runs (1998). Burns tells us what we now know as commonplace facts: that those homers were the product of steroid-pumped bodies. But Burns also makes an explicit connection between the summer of 1998 and the ensuing tragedy that was and is Barry Bonds. Clamoring for the same attention as McGwire and Sosa, Bonds began his descent into steroids and his ascent into the home run record books.

George Lucas once nicknamed his Star Wars franchise "The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker," following the arc of his life: innocence, power-lust, corruption, and eventual redemption. Seeing the full arc-from cute kid, to monster, to dying Darth with his son Luke-becomes necessary if you are to understand the complexities of the man and his tragic life.

In like manner, Burns really wants us to see Bonds in such an arc of human triumph and tragedy-and, perhaps, redemption. Bonds is the underlying theme of the entire four hours: his tormented father, his childhood and early glory, his lust for more acclaim, his turn to steroids, and his unending accolades matched only by fan apathy for such accolades. In the hands of Burns, Bonds serves as a grand metaphor that enables the viewer and the baseball fan to understand the complexities and complicities of this era.

Burns has reset the discussion of how we will evaluate the "steroid era" of baseball. Though a literal asterisk should not be printed in pages of record books, an invisible asterisk will forever be printed in the minds of fans.

What will be the criterion used to determine Hall of Fame eligibility for players from this era? Though that is to be decided by the individual journalists who hold the keys to Cooperstown, I am certain that many voters will attempt to listen to the voice of the fan. Prior to The Tenth Inning, that collective voice seemed to shout, "Keep the bums out!" But, as a result of Ken Burns' work, I predict an eventual change of heart and mind on the matter.


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