EDITOR'S NOTE: Maury Brown was on PBS' the Nightly Business Report on Weds night. Brown was featured in a Business of Baseball segment on MLB's revenue-sharing system (read the transcript). Check your local listings for NBR's time
I don’t envy Ken Burns. It’s one thing to be a documentarian, but it’s quite another to have become the format’s rock star. Whether it has been The Civil War, Jazz, or Baseball, the subject matter has been complex and in the case of Jazz and Baseball, spans an incredible period in history.
So, when PBS announced last year that Burns was going to follow-up on Baseball with The Tenth Inning in two 2-hour segments (broken into the “top” and “bottom” of the Tenth) most fans of the game and of the 1994 9-part series Baseball were delighted.
The challenge for Burns and co-director Lynn Novick was that in all other endeavors (the latter parts of Jazz the exception), the recent past was not covered. The Tenth Inning deals with the 1994 strike, the issue of steroids, and of course the baseball stories that intertwine over the top of them.
From a visualization perspective, the formula that has worked so well for Burns and Novick is repeated in Tenth. Still imagery is still used with interviews, but given the timeframe being covered, there is more film footage, much of which is coming from MLB Productions.
But, where Tenth lacks is in how the content is framed. The central theme throughout is Barry Bonds, portrayed in Shakespearean tones as a complex man of ego, and self-reliance. “Trust” is an unknown quantity that Barry has picked up from his father Bobby.
It’s an interesting thread, but in doing so, Burns and Novick burn precious minutes of the “top” of the Tenth supplying background into Bobby’s life to give context to Barry. As the film moves forward, Barry Bonds becomes the center of the steroid controversy.
So, in many respects, with the topic of steroids being returned to again and again (Canseco, McGwire, Sosa, Bonds) the story of the Tenth – a historical look at baseball since 1994 – reads as a commentary on steroids rather than a proper portrayal of the history of baseball over the last 15 years. Instead of being able to focus on the likes of Ken Griffey, Jr., he is given all of 90 seconds of profile space. The reason? The filmmakers did not want to associate him with steroids topic.
But, if there is a moral obligation to protect Griffey, it is all but kicked to the curb in its sweeping story of Bonds. In interviews in advance of airing of the Tenth, Burns states in matter-of-fact tones about Bonds aggressive steroid use. To amplify it, current ESPN columnist and reporter Howard Bryant goes on to say that Bonds, seeing that his 400 home run, 400 stolen base record goes virtually unnoticed during the McGwire/Sosa single-season home run chase of 1998, decides to pursue the use of steroids in a “I’ll show them all” manner, changing from a speed and power player, to unadulterated performance-enhanced slugger.
While we can believe Bonds has knowingly used PEDs, and there may have been physical attributes to his body changes at the time that makes one think he used PEDs, not only knowingly, but with a vengeance, there is no proof that Bonds used, nor has there been any solid first-hand account that he used knowingly. Burns and Novick could have approached the subject of Bonds around this issue, but chose not to. The story of Tenth deserves to say that it is not (yet?) fact.
There are other holes, as well.
The script says that after the 1994 strike the owners and players realized the damage that had been done to the fans and decided peace should prevail over war going forward. This may logically makes sense, and maybe when the sides lay in bed at night they think it, but in the conversations I've had with Marvin Miller, Don Fehr, Mike Weiner, and Rob Manfred, the same thing has been said repeatedly: concessions are only made when they make sense for each side, and ultimately you have to remove public pressure. The point of fact from the sides has always been, it has to make business sense.
Also, since this is recent history, it would have been good to see more interview footage of the actual newsmakers. How Victor Conte is not within the film is a mystery and something that would have given first-person accounting of the escalation of PEDs in sports.
Also, the “bottom” of the Tenth skips over the battle over contraction of the Expos and the Twins, a large point in history that culminated in the Expos relocating to Washington, D.C. where they are now the Nationals, and would have tied into the tragic element of the 1994 strike and how that killed off the Expos best chances for postseason success, which could have possibly saved the club by landing a new stadium.
All this said, the Tenth Inning is far from a bad effort. It is the bane of Burns and Novak to go after the complexities of baseball labor and the steroid issue while trying to tell of Cal Ripken, Jr., Joe Torre and the Yankees, the 2004 Red Sox and as many compelling storylines in-between. To do it right, what is likely needed is the “Eleventh Inning”… maybe more. It is baseball, after all. As Berra has made so famous, it ain’t over, till it’s over.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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