Baseball: The Tenth Inning Review

The nostalgic husk of Ken Burns’s love of baseball weighs heavily on this latest installment of his documentary series, entitled Baseball: The Tenth Inning. Not his love, necessarily, of training, rained out games, and near-riots inspired by little more than the color and lettering of someone’s shirt, but his love of sepia-tone archive footage, wide shots of masses of people cheering, and the hope that any given game could end in some sort of generation-defining explosion of community spirit (presumably looking something like the ending of The Natural). Burns is certainly aware of the moral intricacy and everyday rigamarole that goes into making the game happen for viewers near and far, and occasionally presents it rather eloquently, but each and every time that it comes into conflict with his vision of baseball as a unifying force for good, he tends to lean towards the more fan-ready perspective, seemingly holding back a more complex portrait of an institution that’s every bit as influential and pervasive as he insists that it is.

Beginning its narrative in 1992 and closing it in only recent years, The Tenth Inning could be divided into two distinct categories: changes in the way that the game was managed by owners, and major success stories that could be hopefully be turned into Disney films one day. Of the two, the former is far more engaging, with Burns’s coverage of the baseball academies set up in Latin American countries to produce stars like Sammy Sosa standing out as an unsentimental example of the American dream manifested that Keith David’s narration insists that baseball represents. On the other hand, extended scenes of the Yankees sweep of the late 90s and the Red Sox World Series victory in 2004 (while relevant) feel like little more than league-produced video for the fans, giving figures like Joe Torre a platform to recount events to people who were probably already familiar with them.

As events in sports history don’t seem to happen in reaction to one another (though Tenth Inning does a good job of extrapolating the fallout from the mid-90s strike), the film has something of a spurting, uneven pace, but it does manage to find one development to link together its nearly 20 years of history: the omnipresence of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. While the public’s gradual awareness of just how much very popular athletes were using these drugs seems to perfectly embody the changes that happened to baseball during these representative years, The Tenth Inning’s reluctance to take any sort of stand on the issue (or in any way criticize the players that were involved) prevents it from ever attaining the full spectrum of emotions that a die-hard fan during these years had.

The Tenth Inning takes its time to celebrate the big moments: Cal Ripken’s attempts to bring dignity back to the game after the prolonged and ugly dispute between managers and players, the race to beat Roger Maris’s home run record in 1998. But when it comes time to take a long hard look at what seems to have been lost since the glory days, Burns flinches. He chooses an appropriate climax in Barry Bonds’s breaking of Hank Aaron’s home run record (an event greeted by most in this film as tainted and illegitimate), but does not dwell on the anger and discord that it provoked. After spending so much time setting up just how important and special the game is, it would seem that this conclusion would be nothing short of heartbreaking. It rings instead as a curious afterthought, denying us entry, in a way, to the raw spirit of fandom that is evoked so nicely when the game is going the right way.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The discs also contain an interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as well as a number of deleted and alternate scenes that didn't make it into the final cut.

"Baseball: The Tenth Inning" is on sale October 5, 2010 and is not rated. Documentary, Sports. Directed by Ken Burns. Written by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, David McMahon. Starring Keith David, Keith Olbermann, Joe Torre, Bob Costas, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Marc McGwire, George Steinbrenner.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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