An outstanding continuation of Ken Burns's 19-hour television documentary Baseball (1994), the just-aired Baseball - The Tenth Inning brings the national pastime's recent history up-to-date, covering the years 1994-2009. The greatest compliment I can pay it is to say this: My own interest in the sport plummeted after the come hell-or-high water closing of the much-beloved Tiger Stadium in Detroit, one of the last of the old-time ballparks, its eventual razing symbolic of insatiable corporate greed and the gentrification of the game into something no longer recognizable, at least to me. And yet The Tenth Inning had me totally hooked, mesmerized, for all of its four hours. Burns's (and co-director Lynn Novick's) skilled hands are all over The Tenth Inning, which consistently avoids the obvious, boils defining moments into the personal, internal conflicts of the game's heroes (and its fans), and never glosses over or short changes complex and controversial issues.
The PBS Blu-ray (distributed by Paramount) is fine, with eye-pleasing on-camera interviews and an excellent use of sometimes beautiful archival photographs throughout, although HD clips from actual games are pretty much limited to the show's final moments. Deleted scenes and an interview with the directors are included as bonus features.
The four-hour show is divided into two parts. In "Top of the Tenth" (1992-1999), Burns and Novick explore the acrimony between players and owners that festered into the ruinous strike that nearly destroyed the game; the rise of Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves and the continuing Yankees dynasty (personified by up-from-the-ranks manager Joe Torre); the spectacular but unhappy career of Barry Bonds, whose amazing accomplishments are overshadowed by the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa; the influx of Latin American players, and the open secret about the growing use of performance-enhancing drugs.
In part two, "Bottom of the Tenth" (1999-2009), the globalization of the game is personified by Ichiro Suzuki - the wiry, diversely talented player from Japan in an era dominated by artificially pumped-up sluggers; the game becomes a much-needed escape from the numbing tragedy of 9/11 and the economic downturn; the heartbreak of the Chicago Cubs' 2003 season (whose hopes are dashed in an instant via infamous fan interference), and the sweet victory of the Boston Red Sox in 2004, after an 86-year drought. But the insane statistics-busting accomplishments of the game's hottest players eventually draw national attention the veritable pandemic of drug use, with perhaps as many as 80% of all Major Leaguers cheating their way to the top. This comes to a head as Barry Bonds - unquestionably beefed up on steroids, transformed between seasons - inches toward Hank Aaron's home run record, prompting as much fan outrage as admiration.
Baseball - The Tenth Inning covers a lot of ground with much intelligence. Though it features its share of amazing plays and historic moments, it never feels like an extended highlights reel. Indeed, many of the program's most powerful moments come in the form of still photographs or comments by the on-camera interviewees rather than video of the moment itself. Most of the interviewees aren't players but sportswriters and commentators like Keith Olbermann and George Will.
The filmmakers also recognize that heartbreak is often more compelling and revealing than triumph. My favorite moment in Tenth Inning comes when lifelong Red Sox fan Mike Barnicle recounts his team's devastating 2003 loss to the Yankees for the American League Championship, and the impact of that game on his youngest son. When the Red Sox finally vanquish the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, the graves of those long-suffering fans that never got to see the Sox win the pennant in their lifetime, are in the days that followed littered like flowers with caps, scorecards, and pennants. (see above) Such moments in The Tenth Inning are indescribably touching.
Barry Bonds: misanthropic, insecure, impossible to please - least of all himself - oddly enough becomes The Tenth Inning's central character, one who seeks validation in a game that, he felt, did his father, an MLB veteran, a great disservice. A man who wants to be loved but whose behavior is so surly and self-defeating that instead of building a career he seems determined to destroy it. He's also the symbol of the program's undercurrent of scandal, appearing lean and mean in the first half, yet so pumped up on steroids in the second that his shoe size reportedly ballooned from a 10 to a 13 in a single year.
Bonds's and the other players' inexplicable, too-good-to-be-true record-breaking accomplishments gave rise to the asterisk (*), a symbol of tainted achievement, decorating placards held by disdaining fans. And yet Burns and Novick admirably document this controversy in myriad shades of gray, as controversies usually are.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1080i, the 16:9 Baseball - The Tenth Inning looks just fine throughout. The on-camera interviews and use of color and black-and-white photographs plays well, and the older video technologies from which the clips are sourced don't suffer too badly. Better is the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio, which has excellent mixing and makes good use of the show's rich soundtrack. A Spanish stereo track is also available, along with English SDH subtitles. The two-disc set is Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include a 17-minute interview (in 1080p) with co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and, in standard-def, loads of "outtakes" and "additional scenes" (What's the dif?), in all running more than two hours.
Whether or not you've already seen Burns's original Baseball series, Baseball - The Tenth Inning is enormously entertaining all by itself, and even those disinterested in sports generally may, as I was, find themselves utterly engrossed by this fascinating show. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.