Paramount // 2010 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // October 5th, 2010
More than 15 years after documenting the first century of baseball, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick return with Baseball: The Tenth Inning -- a four-hour look at the last 18 years of our national pastime. From the 1994 players' strike and building steroid scandal to the growing importance of players from outside the United States, Burns presents the ups and downs of baseball's modern history. It's a riveting look at how a nation almost turned its back on the game, and the price baseball paid to get those fans back to the park.
Burns aired his exhaustive, 18-plus hour history of baseball in the fall of 1994, about a month after Major League owners and the players' union failed to reach a new contract agreement, resulting in a strike that lasted until April of 1995. The same year Burns celebrated the resilience of America's game, it ground to a halt. The World Series was cancelled for the first time in nine decades, and many disgusted fans swore they'd never watch another game. That hostile intersection of players, owners, and fans is where Ken Burns' new documentary begins.
The past eighteen years has been an era of rebuilding, not only for fans but for players and teams. As the American economy boomed and baseball salaries rose, team owners looked outside the United States for cheap talent. They got a lot more. With a combination of talent and drive, players like Alex Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, and Ichiro Suzuki re-energized the game. Meanwhile, in New York, a newly hired manager named Joe Torre ended the Yankees' 18-year dry spell in dramatic fashion, leading them to six World Series from 1996 to 2003. And in 1998, even non-fans paid attention to the race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Hank Aaron's single season home run record -- a record that would be broken again three years later by the most emblematic and controversial figure of the era.
Throughout all of The Tenth Inning, Barry Bonds is shown as the example all of the good and bad things that happened to baseball during the past two decades. The son of All-Star right fielder Bobby Bonds, Barry made a big splash in the Majors, first in Pittsburgh and then in his hometown of San Francisco. Despite winning a number of MVP and Golden Glove awards, and being the first National League player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season, he wanted more. When he saw how popular McGwire and Sosa had become for their ability to hit homers, he decided to shift his focus. He returned from the off-season with a muscle-bound physique and a determination to become the best home run hitter in the game. And he did, though as we now know, he, like McGwire and countless others, did so by taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Fair or not, steroids are The Tenth Inning's big story. Performance enhancing drugs caught on quickly, and spread like a cancer. The surging popularity of baseball's offensive game, coupled with the slowness of Major League Baseball and the players' union to respond, helped make steroid use all but necessary for players to stay competitive. As comedian Chris Rock asks early in the documentary, "Who wouldn't take a pill to make more money at their job?" For a game built on "artful deception" like sign stealing and ball-tampering to gain an advantage over your opponent, steroid use was, unfortunately, a natural fit.
Steroids may have been the price baseball paid to bounce back after the strike, but the game is played on the field, not the weight room. Burns is honest about the importance of steroids on baseball, but they don't dominate the story. The modern era is filled with thrilling stories of dramatic wins, devastating losses, and shattered records. The Tenth Inning celebrates the best of those stories. Steroid use aside, the McGwire-Sosa home run record race is as thrilling to watch now as it was then, and Burns deserves a lot of credit for making this diehard Red Sox fan cheer when the then-underdog Yankees came back to beat the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series. Even though that win kicked off nearly a decade of New York dominance, Burns gives equal time to Boston's historic comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship, and the World Series win that erased 86 years of frustration. (Speaking of frustration, the same fans who are perpetually annoyed by the way Sox and Yankee coverage dominates the sports pages will probably be annoyed again, since they get disproportionately more screentime in The Tenth Inning than smaller market teams.)
It's not necessary to watch this documentary on Blu-ray, but it sure looks pretty. Not everything benefits from the 1080i upgrade -- video footage of old and not-so-old games, for instance, looks pretty rough -- but the MLB archive photographs, talking head interviews, and recent HD game feeds all come across sharp and rich with detail. From action shots to ballparks packed with fans, the still photos are stunning, a tapestry of blue skies and green outfields so lifelike you can almost smell the freshly mown grass and testosterone.
Although Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track might seem like overkill for a documentary, the extra channels provide plenty of breathing room, keeping Keith David's narration front and center while using the rear speakers for background music and ambient ballpark sounds. The Tenth Inning won't rattle any walls, but it's a surprisingly effective mix.
In addition to the feature documentary across two discs, this set comes with almost two-and-a-half hours of bonus material. The leadoff extra on disc one is a 17-minute interview with co-directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. They talk about what it was like for their first baseball documentary to air during the '94 strike, and New England native Burns reveals that the genesis of the Tenth Inning follow-up was the Red Sox finally winning the World Series. The rest of the bonus material is made up of additional footage and interviews, about an hour's worth on each disc. While there's a definite Red Sox bias (a tour of Fenway Park on disc one lasts a full 13 minutes), the bonus segments cover wide-ranging subjects like hitters, pitchers, the "asterisk" controversy, minority players, 9/11, and Rotisserie Baseball. If you enjoyed the documentary, you'll enjoy the stuff they left out just as much. It's just too bad that, unlike the Burns and Novak interview, the deleted footage is letterboxed, full-screen, and in standard definition.
Baseball: The Tenth Inning provides a thrilling overview of the last two decades of my all-time favorite sport. It's honest about the problems that plague modern baseball, all the while celebrating the timeless joy of the game. While Burns and Novick arguably spend too much time on the steroid scandal, Barry Bonds, and the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, they cast a wide enough net that fans who don't live on the East Coast should get caught up in the drama as well.
Yer safe! (Ump-to-English translation: Not guilty!)
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Footage
* Official Site