Ken Burns' mammoth film on baseball debuted during the horrible strike of 1994. I remember at the time enjoying it, especially considering those were dark days for the game. It reminded me, as sportswriter Howard Bryant says in the follow-up film, The Tenth Inning, that "the game is bigger than the players, the owners, steroids, and money."
Burns and his co-director, Lynn Novick, have picked up the story from the end of their last film. As usual with Burns, he has structured it in the form of a narrative, using people from the game as characters. It turns out that for this film, Barry Bonds will be the central figure. He is both hero, antihero, and villain, depending on when we see him and what our attitude is.
The film starts with background on Bonds, especially on his father, Bobby, who felt he was mistreated in the majors. Then, after the nasty business of the strike, we get a profile of Cal Ripken, who helped turn things around for baseball. We get a look at the re-emergence of the New York Yankees under Joe Torre as skipper. There's also a segment on the rapidly expanding number of Latin players in the game.
Then we get a glorious reconstruction of the summer of '98, in which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chase Roger Maris' single-season home run record. Even though this has now been irrevocably tainted by what we all know, it's still a thrill to relive the excitement that this chase brought to the game. Even if it a sham of sorts, it was essential to reviving the interest in the game after the lingering smell of the labor dispute.
Part two covers the steroid business in all of its ugliness. There is the contradiction, though, that through all of this the game increased in popularity. Apparently fans are willing to overlook players cheating to win much more than they are the escalation of player salaries (in the 1970s, the average major-leaguer made three times the average salary, while today it is fifty times). I'll admit that during all this I was skeptical and willing to give players the benefit of the doubt, figuring that taking a pill couldn't help you hit a ball better. But the numbers just don't lie.
It's interesting that those Burns uses as interview subjects are sympathetic to players on this issue. Comedian Chris Rock, in his only bit of face-time, asks "If you could take a pill to do your job better, wouldn't you? If you could take a pill and make Spielberg money, wouldn't you?" I'm not sure I would, frankly. I get tired of the sanctimony of baseball writers on this issue, considering they are likely boozers and dopers, too, but Burns seems a bit too eager to give players a pass.
A good chuck of the second half is on the rivalry between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, which has been both good and bad for baseball. Good, in that it puts fannies in the seats and eyeballs to the tube, but bad in that it seems that these are the only two teams that the media pays attention to. We get close examinations of the Boston heartbreak in the '03 league championship, when Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long and Aaron Boone ended it with a walk-off homer, and then the '04 Boston miracle. Burns in a Red Sox fan, so we might understand this indulgence. It's great to see that again--the Dave Roberts steal, the Ortiz homer, and then the Johnny Damon grand slam that iced it.
Finally we return to Bonds, and his chase of Hank Aaron. Bob Costas described it as "joyless," and Bryant can't recall what he was doing when Bonds broke the record. It had none of the excitement of previous records falling, as everyone suspected Bonds of using PEDs. I suppose this will linger until someone who plays his entire career during the post-steroid, drug-testing era, breaks that record. While watching, I had to be reminded how many homers Bonds ended up with, 762. That I didn't know that readily is indicative of something, as numbers like 714 and 755 were as well known to me as my phone number.
Overall the film was well worth watching. Yes, it gets a bit syrupy, but I'm the sort who thinks baseball is worthy of that kind of sentimentalization. Burns' interview subjects lay it on thick, particularly Mike Barnicle, while others, like Bryant and writer Marcos Breton are much more clear-eyed. Thomas Boswell, who has been one of the great sportswriters for a long time now, actually brings up Keats' tribute to William Shakespeare in baseball's use of negative capability. I can only imagine how that played with some fans, who are tired of the overlay of literary patina on a game that is played by men who don't know who Keats is.