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Baseball: The Tenth Inning (Blu-ray Review)

1 Oct, 2010 By: John Latchem

Street 10/5/10
$24.99 two-DVD set, $29.99 two-disc Blu-ray
Not rated.

Narrated by Keith David.

A natural tendency for historical analysis is to separate eras by significant themes, movements or personalities. In America, that usually translates into a review of the accomplishments of the U.S. presidents. But, as documentarian Ken Burns demonstrated with his brilliant Baseball in 1994, America has enjoyed a sort of parallel history through its love and fascination with this simple little game.

The history of baseball has been one of civil rights and labor movements; greedy entrepreneurs and enterprising individuals looking to make their mark on the world; and men of talent just trying to get by with the gifts god gave them. So, too, can baseball be viewed in terms of its eras, usually defined by its dominant players. From the age of Babe Ruth, to the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947, a golden age of pitchers in the 1960s and the rise of free agency in the 1970s, the remarkable constant about Major League baseball is that the basic structure of the game has remained unchanged for more than 100 years (the addition of the designated hitter in 1973 aside).

When Burns completed his original 19-hour reflection on the history of the sport, he was not aware of the impending strike that would cancel the 1994 World Series. But his timing turned out to be fortuitous. In lieu of actual games, this retrospective seemed like the next best thing, concluding with the notion that baseball had become a truly international sport with the crowning of a non-American team as champion for the first time (The Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993).

As such, that prolonged labor dispute marked the end of an era in one sense, and the beginning of another. And thus we have The Tenth Inning, Burns’ long-awaited, four-hour update to what was already a definitive history.

The Tenth Inning is the story of a sport rediscovering its relationship with its fans following the bitterly received strike and the taint of steroids. And Burns is quick to assign a poster child to these interesting times: Barry Bonds. The Tenth Inning is as much a biography of Bonds as it is a chronicle of the game: from his upbringing and early potential to his need to share in the spotlight created by sluggers such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Though The Tenth Inning is a continuation of sorts, it also stands alone, due to Burns' isolating each chapter as a period of history. The Tenth Inning is the perfect reflection of the era it covers. Much like America’s recent gilded age of burst bubbles and false hopes, baseball for the past 20 years has been a sport punctuated by great moments but propped up by deceptions of stars thrilling their fans with feats that almost seemed too good to be true, and some that turned out to be. This is the story of a business in decline struggling to stay relevant in a modern world, reclaiming its popularity in the 1990s by looking the other way.

Despite the scandals, the Major League brand is more successful than ever, and The Tenth Inning makes the point that the game is bigger than any of its players, and that’s what the fans love about it. Men such as Bonds who are perceived to taint that reputation are not signs of a sport in turmoil, but held out as an enemy attempting to ruin a proud tradition (which only drives up attendance when fans come out to boo them). As The Tenth Inning ably demonstrates, the history of the game is rife with cheating, and performance-enhancing drugs are just the latest manifestation of that trend.

With The Tenth Inning, Burns attempts to reconcile the past two decades of baseball with all that has come before, rediscovering the luster of a sport that had somewhat lost its sheen.

The net effect is that The Tenth Inning seems a bit hollow than its predecessor, which is perhaps not surprising given the events that transpired and considering those interviewed here are recalling their experiences directly rather than recounting lore and legend. Still, The Tenth Inning has the unmistakable feel of Burns (who co-directed with Lynn Novick) and fits in nicely as a new chapter of Baseball.

As much as The Tenth Inning is about Bonds and steroids, it is also the tale of two franchises returning to glory: longtime rivals the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. In one of the great extras on the Blu-ray, Burns notes there might not be a Tenth Inning if the Red Sox, his favorite team, hadn’t won the World Series in 2004 for the first time since 1918 (“they would never win another,” the original Baseball so dutifully intoned).

It’s interesting to see how some of the profiles of modern players such as Ichiro Suzuki take on the same tone as earlier profiles of legends such as Ty Cobb. But Burns doesn’t quite cover everything he can. While his history is thorough, there are no doubt many great moments fans will want to see covered and will be disappointed that they are not.

The most jarring change is getting used to a new narrator, with Keith David taking over for the late John Chancellor, who died in 1996. My initial thought was David McCullough should have done it (he narrated Burns’ The Civil War documentary), but Keith David’s authoritative voice is distinctive in its own right and never takes the focus off of the core subject matter.

The Tenth Inning runs all the way through 2009, with the Yankees claiming a 27th championship. That means there wasn’t enough time to cover the death of longtime Yankees boss George Steinbrenner in July 2010, which would certainly have signaled the end of an era. Then again, if Burns were to ever do an 11th Inning, maybe the passing Steinbrenner’s legacy is the perfect jumping off point into whatever is to come of this great game of ours.

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