How does Ken Burns do it? No, not put together documentaries. I know how to do that. No, how does he manage to find the biggest blowhards to talk about baseball?
Burns was back the past two nights with “The Tenth Inning,” a continuation of his seminal nine-part baseball documentary. Aside from a dubious history of baseball (I remember someone at ESPN catalogued hundreds of factual errors in the nine-parter), Burns unearthed every self-important person who loves the sound of their own voice to comment. They included Bob Costas, Billy Crystal, Mario Cuomo (?), Doris Kearns Goodwin (an excellent presidential historian, but who cares what she thinks about baseball?), and many others whom I have blocked out of my memory.
This time, Burns continued the parade with Jon Miller, Keith Olbermann, Costas (again), Goodwin (again), Mike Barnicle, Tom Boswell, George Will, and Bud Selig. At least most of these people have more of an actual connection to baseball than the last time around, but still, it is painful to listen to them ramble on in their self-reverential tone.
I don’t understand why Burns didn’t interview more baseball players, managers and baseball executives. After all, who knows more about the sport than them? I know Burns is trying to show baseball’s effect on our country, hence talking to non-baseball folks. But the only players Burns interviewed were Pedro Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki (which was very surprising and fascinating, since he rarely gives interviews). He also spoke to managers Joe Torre and Felipe Alou. That’s it (unless I missed some — I spent part of part 1 on the phone).
He mentioned Curt Schilling several times. Why not talk to him (he’ll talk to anybody with a camera)? About the 1994 strike, he talks about threats Tom Glavine, an outspoken player rep, received. I’d rather have heard that from Glavine himself.
I had a few other issues. When talking about baseball and 9/11, Burns didn’t show the ceremony before the first game back at Shea. That was an historic moment. In talking about the Yankees-Diamondbacks World Series that followed, he went on about tight security at Yankee Stadium, but didn’t show then-President Bush throwing out the first ball. Whether you like the guy or not, that was another historic moment. I couldn’t have been the only one whose heart was pounding as Bush stood on the pitchers mound, praying he would get off the field before a terrorist sniper got him.
Then there was important information Burns curiously left out. For example, he mentioned Ichiro’s 200+ hit seasons, but for some reason didn’t say he broke the all-time record for hits in a season. Is Burns even a baseball fan?
From a production point of view, I hated the fake crack-of-the-bat and phony crowd noise behind every highlight. Why not just let the natual sound play? And it was oddly structured. The Barry Bonds saga was properly highlighted. But instead of just telling his story and moving on, Burns kept returning to Bonds in what seemed like every other segment. I guess he was weaving it into the fabric of his story since it was so important. That’s an effective device, but I didn’t like the way it turned out.
As a baseball fan, it was nice to see the highlights of the past 15 years. But this could have been so much better, especially if Burns had not taken himself and his subject so seriously. Yes, the steroid issue and the strike were serious business. But baseball is a game. It is supposed to be fun. There was nothing fun about this documentary.