Friday, October 1, 2010

The Tenth Inning: A Skeptic's Review

By Bill

When I heard a year and a half ago that Ken Burns was planning an update chapter of his epic Baseball documentary, I couldn't make myself think a single positive thought about it. I remember parking on the couch and watching every minute of the original video marathon with my dad, and loving it. But that was different! I was fifteen. And frankly, I have the film on DVD and still love it, but it was a simpler time, and a different project. It was about history (all of it, really; the film had been finished well before the 1994 strike, so none of it really felt "now"); this one, meanwhile, would feel a lot more like current events. All I could imagine it being was several hours of crying about how the players make too much money and steroids have ruined the game. So I felt an obligation to watch it, but no particular interest.

Well...I'm very, very glad I did. In my opinion, Burns' new work, while far from perfect and nowhere near as endlessly fascinating and joy-making as the 18-hour original article, was done almost exactly as well as he could possibly have done it. He certainly didn't shy away from the controversies and other nonsense, but they were dealt with realistically and even-handedly. There was probably too much of a couple silly and generally uncomprehending journalists who shall not be named...but the editing was so good, they rarely got the chance to say anything really upsetting. I was prepared to hate it, and frankly, I loved it. Not as much or nearly in the same manner as the original miniseries, but "love" is still the right word. The still and moving images were beautifully chosen and arranged; In Keith David, they had the greatest narrator of anything, ever (give or take). There was some truly insightful commentary, and on and on. If you stayed away for the same reasons I was tempted to stay away, give it a shot.

The nice thing about watching "The Bottom of the Tenth" on DVR a day late, and writing the review a day late, is that I've already gotten to see a number of other reviews and gotten a pretty good idea of what other people are thinking about this thing. (If you read only one kind of negative review, please God let it be this one.) So the rest of this will be heavily based on things that bothered other people:

Things That Didn't Bother Me
1. The Focus on the Steroid Issue. If you've read anything else I've written, you probably know how utterly bored I am (and have always been) by the PED/steroid issue. I don't think the scandal is significantly worse than (or in many cases, nearly as bad as) any number of other colossal muck-ups that have rolled right off baseball's musclebound back across the decades, I'm skeptical as to whether the substances' effect on the game and its statistics has been anywhere near as significant as most people have assumed.
But that's a different issue, when you think about it. Steroids' impact on the game have, in my opinion, been wildly and obnoxiously overblown. But as a direct consequence, of course, the steroid story's impact on the game has been a really big damn deal. If you're going to pick an individual and a theme to attempt to tie together a documentary about this otherwise randomly grouped-together sixteen year period, doesn't it have to be Barry Bonds and PEDs? I had no problem with that at all.

2. The Treatment of the Steroid Issue. You just know (or I suspect, anyway) that Howard Bryant, Bob Costas and George Will recorded dozens and dozens of hours of material in which they moralize like no one has ever moralized before about Clemens, Bonds, A-Rod, and PEDs. But know what? Watch the thing again, and I think you'll notice that all that footage didn't make the final cut. Of course there's ominous music and suggestive stuff. How could there not be? What there isn't is a statement, or even a suggestion, that Barry Bonds has made a mockery of the game, will never make the Hall of Fame, or any of those other crazy things you hear people say. They even properly noted the myriad problems with the farcical Mitchell Report.
Burns parses through the nonsense and says: here's the issue; here's what most people seem to think happened; here's how some people feel about it; here's how other people feel about it; here's why people love the game anyway. I've read where people have said that they felt some of the commentators (Costas in particular) were inventing a crisis that didn't exist. But I've got to say: I didn't hear that at all (which, again, doesn't at all mean that Costas didn't say it, somewhere on the metaphorical cutting room floor). The film never for a second pretended that baseball was in any serious danger of succumbing to the scandal. Any time they mentioned the congressional hearings, suspensions or disappointments, they followed it by mentioning that baseball thrived anyway, that people found a way to get past or compartmentalize their disappointments and love the game just as much as (or more than) ever. I suspect--with all due respect--that some people were reacting to what they thought they would see, not what was actually there.

3. The Red Sox and Yankees coverage. We live in a world in which, to fans of 28 of the 30 teams, the Yankees and Red Sox have become really, really annoying. There's nothing particularly interesting about these two teams; they're just rich, and good, and awfully full of themselves, and they play each other on national TV a minimum of eighteen times a year. The 2007 Red Sox and 2009 Yankees, to non-fans, are probably the two most obnoxious championship teams of my lifetime. People are really sick of hearing about the Red Sox and Yankees. Even Red Sox fan Jeff Polman, in the review I linked to above, thinks they went overboard with the Red Sox-Yankees focus.
Well...I don't. In the fifteen championship seasons covered by The Tenth Inning (1995-2009), those two teams have combined to make the postseason 23 times, and at least one of them has made it every year. They've won seven of the fifteen World Series (47%) and appeared in nine (60%). More importantly for Burns' purposes, they appeared in the two greatest collections of games the last fifteen years has seen. Having lived through another six years of an endless number of unfailingly over-hyped matchups, it's pretty easy for fans of other teams to forget how unbelievably tense, history-making and, frankly, awesome were the American League Championship Series of 2003 and 2004. If you're making a documentary about baseball and don't intend it to be a rote chronicling of what has happened in baseball, in chronological order, for the last fifteen years, you've got to make some choices and decide what you really want to spend your time on. In this case, Burns picked the right two series to spend a whole lot of his time on.

4. The Cubs and White Sox Treatment. This goes back to the chronicling thing. If your job is to educate people on the facts of what happened in baseball, and you spend half an hour on the Red Sox's first series win in 86 years and approximately five seconds on the White Sox's first win in 88, that borders on criminal incompetence. If, on the other hand, your job is to create an entertaining documentary that tells a story rather than facts, that's the right decision. The White Sox were relatively rarely even close to winning the World Series in those 88 years, have not had nearly the same rabid following (rather because of the cross-town competition, changes in the socioeconomic profile of its surroundings, or pure chance), and never had Ted Williams or even Wade Boggs have a brilliant and fated-to-never-win-the-big-one career for them (the Southsiders' best player of the drought, by far in my opinion, was still on the team in 2005). In a six-hour documentary, it's a story, but I can see how in a four-hour documentary, it would fall by the wayside.
And the Cubs? You've got to talk about the drought and 2003, but it just doesn't have the drama or general interest of the Yanks-Sox stuff. (I do have a problem with it, mentioned below, but it's not the time they spent on it.)  "The Cubs finally won one," of course, would have been a huge story. Maybe a big chunk of The Eleventh Inning will be devoted to your 2017 World Champion Cubbies or something.

5. The Sabermetrics Treatment. Yeah, sabermetrics are a huge part of the game. Again, if you're chronicling things that have been important to the last fifteen years, spend more than five minutes on sabermetrics. But...that's boring. I mean, it takes up a ton of my life and I love it, but in a film you want people to watch years from now (when sabermetrics will probably cease to be a term; they'll simply be considered "baseball statistics") and to know what the game was like during our time? Five minutes is probably enough. I do wish that they'd found someone better to talk about it than Jon Miller, who is fantastic in almost every other possible way, but who seems to get a big kick out of being as intentionally obtuse about the whole sabermetrics thing as it's possible to be.

Things That Did Bother Me
1. No 1998 Yankees?
While I'd have spent just as much time as Burns did on the Yankees, I don't get devoting 20 minutes to the 1996 squad (a good team that frankly got pretty lucky to win the Series) and zero minutes to the 1998 squad (one of the best teams in history that, in my opinion, is what really launched a dynastic team that went to the Series five times in six years). 
And when the film did spend all that time blathering about the '96 Yankees, it seemed to completely lose its focus. While the rest of it focused in like a laser on the very most interesting bits of the last fifteen years, the 1996 Yankees portion dragged on talking about things that no one but Yankees fans could be interested in, and suddenly felt more like a team season highlights video than a documentary about the game itself. That part where Joe Torre talks about what was going through his mind that one time he went out to talk to Dave Cone? I mean...what?

2. Too many easy answers. At the same time that he's delivering the kind of fair and reasonable picture of the steroid issue that I was sure he was incapable of, Burns is awfully quick to accept some lazy, obviously incorrect assumptions about the rest of his material. Cal Ripken's Streak went and saved baseball in 1995 (I'm one of those who really respects Ripken's accomplishment and thinks it was definitely worth talking about...but baseball would've been just fine if he'd come down with a case of the chicken pox in May '95). The Giants were fated to lose 2002 Game 7 after the heartbreak of Game 6. And so on.
Worst of all, the film accepted, without any indication at all that it might not be the full story, that Steve Bartman cost the Cubs a chance at the 2003 World Series. Nevermind that the team had to then completely implode -- including a routine ground ball right through the shortstop's legs -- and give up 8 runs that inning, or that Moises Alou might not have caught that interfered-with fly ball anyway. Bartman was a convenient scapegoat, but a teensy, tiny part of what actually went wrong in that game. But thanks to Burns, his fabricated legend lives on.
You're not going to do justice to fifteen years in four hours, but that doesn't mean you have to just accept all the old answers and move on, either.

3. Roberto Clemente. I don't doubt that the level of work the big league clubs are doing to develop players in Latin America has expanded hugely in the last decade and a half. But, I mean, there are three or four whole generations chock full of Latino baseball players between Roberto Clemente and Sammy Sosa. The connection between Clemente and the real subjects of that (otherwise wonderful) segment seemed less than tenuous to me. I think I'd say the same thing about Bobby Bonds, while I'm thinking about it. He's an interesting character and obviously a vital part of the life of The Tenth Inning's anti-hero, but it seemed weird to spend so much time on a player who retired in 1981, especially so early in Part I of the program.

4. Whither Pujols? I'd have to go back and look, but I feel like every player of Albert Pujols' stature in baseball history -- figure there have only been 25 or so at most -- got his own segment, however brief, in the original Baseball documentary. That Pujols' name wasn't mentioned even once during this film (that I noticed) was shocking. No, he hasn't had nearly the cultural significance of Ichiro or the cartoonish numbers of Bonds, but he does (in half the career) already have a better career WAR than Ken Griffey, Jr., who got a nice couple minutes. You've got to find a way to get him in there somewhere.

Miscellany and Minutiae
Finally, some things I found really interesting or wanted to make note of that don't fit in above:
1. The 2002 Giants had the most interesting and probably the most well-traveled outfield ever, with Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders joining Bonds. I forgot the first two were on that team. Pretty cool.
2. Ichiro is even cooler and wittier than I realized or expected. Ditto Pedro Martinez; the footage of him at his best, the way it was put together in this film, brings back some pretty awesome memories.
3. Joe Torre comes off as exactly what I have always envisioned him as: a just fine, sometimes intellectually overmatched manager with no extraordinary tactical acumen who happened to get put in charge of the most talented and financially sustainable club in baseball.
4. It was a bit surprising that Don Fehr and Bud Selig even let themselves be interviewed for this project. They come off as exactly the dunderheaded slimeballs most of us already knew them to be. Glad the filmmakers did it, but at times their interview snippets were just hard to watch.
5.  It's incredibly easy to make me tear up at something about 9/11. But I thought that part was handled very well.
6. It was hard to remember that Selena Roberts, Tom Boswell and Tom Verducci had written some of the most mind-blowingly silly things that have been written about baseball in the last five years. Gets back to a point I already made, but Burns did a great job making some kind of silly people look pretty smart and interesting.

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