Hits, Runs and Errors
by Thomas Delapa
The Tenth Inning of director Ken Burns’ winning PBS Baseball series felt less like a fall classic than a classic forties film noir: A foul sense of doom and gloom was ever lurking on-deck, despite the two decades of on-field drama and brilliant heroics. The lurking gloom, of course, was steroids, Major League Baseball’s crippling scandal that made the Black Sox cheaters look like bush leaguers.
Fans of the game must have been crying in their beers during Burns’ painful blow-by-blow on the rise and fall of such tarnished diamond stars as Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Roger Clemens. Taking up his chronicle in the early 1990s, Burns returns with his documentary instincts intact, though not the same behind-the-scenes team that made the first nine episodes so much of a hit. Lamentably gone is the seasoned narration by John Chancellor; Keith David is only average off the bench. Burns’ lineup of sportswriter commentaries was also a bit out of left field, with too much playing time given to lesser-knowns at the expense of veterans. The largely generic background music is a weak out.
In the last two decades, professional baseball has been it’s own worst enemy. A renaissance in the grand new era of urban ballparks was followed by the near-suicidal players’ strike in 1994. All-star stories like Cal Ripken’s Iron Man endurance record, the superhuman hitting feats of Ichiro Suziki and the New York Yankees’ deep-pockets resurgence are left on base while Burns ploddingly shadows baseball’s surly dark knight, Barry Bonds, in his unholy quest for all those once-sacred home run records.
An unsung refrain in this ode/dirge doubleheader is “greed, greed, greed.” Most fans, however loyal to their teams and the sport itself, blame the players in our era of multi-million free-agent contracts for banjo-hitting utility infielders. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, indeed.
As to the ugly Steroid Era (which may still be playing at ballpark near you), muted whistle-blowers like Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci have their turn at bat, sending blistering line drives in the direction of the players, the owners and MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who all happily played Three Blind Mice during the travesty. Ironically, however the baseball world cheered the 1998 McGuire/Sammy Sosa home-run race as welcome relief from the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, ultimately baseball was far worse at cleaning up its own dirty laundry. On the subject of the ever-woeful Chicago Cubs after the infamous 2003 Steven Bartman foul ball, Verducci hits this winner: “They’ve had a bad century. It’s time to rally.”
But in Boston, long-suffering Red Sox fans finally rejoiced in 2004, burying the Curse of the Bambino as their team won its first World Series in 86 years. In this bright highlight, Burns swings for the fences and gets there, wrapping up Boston’s amazing, history-making comeback against the hated Yankees, a series that miraculously turned on the few inches between Dave Roberts’ hand, a glove and a stolen second base. Like a home run disappearing in the night sky, the lyrical play-by-play comments from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and columnist Mike Barnicle lift The Tenth Inning from mere sport reportage to a poignant sweet spot deep in every true fan’s heart.
Originally published in The Perpetual Post, 10/1/10