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September 27, 2010

Prospectus Q&A

Ken Burns

by David Laurila

“The Tenth Inning,” a two-part, four-hour documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, airs on Tuesday, September 28 and Wednesday, September 29 on PBS. Burns’ new film is a sequel to his nine-part epic series, “Baseball,” which aired during the players’ strike in 1994.

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David Laurila: Have baseball fans—your primary audience for this film—changed since the original series came out 16 years ago?

Ken Burns: I think they have. We’re perhaps a little bit more jaded and sophisticated. The audience is broader; baseball has undergone an enormous increase in popularity and the ways of digesting it. Yet for me, as a filmmaker who happens to be a rabid baseball fan, the most interesting thing is the universality of the stories—the way in which baseball, always, good and bad, is a mirror of our larger American society. So, when you’re a pharmacological culture, like we are today—among other things—that has been the No. 1 scandal. It has been people taking drugs, in secret, to do better at their jobs.

DL:
Is baseball truly as popular, and as important to our culture, as it once was?

KB:
Absolutely. There was a time when baseball was the only sport and so there was never even a question about the national pastime. There were sort of non-gentlemanly sports like horse racing and boxing, and then there was this little fly buzzing around baseball called college football. We think that there was this golden age in which everybody followed everything, but if you look at the attendance records, it just isn’t true. People were identifying with… it was perhaps, a simpler media structure; there were lots of newspapers covering games in their sports pages, but right now there are more people watching baseball than any other sport.

There are so many different platforms and ways to see it. There is online, fantasy, as well at the traditional television and being there in person. Stadiums have been built, 18 of them in 19 years. When Dodger Stadium is the third-oldest stadium in the majors, you know that you’ve undergone some unusual revamping. This is the Golden Age. I think that Bud Selig is absolutely correct when he says that.

It’s also complicated by other thorny issues that don’t go away. There is ongoing labor tension where they’ve managed, ironically… the devastating strike of 1994 turned out to be a positive thing in the long run. People were so devastated by it that finally MLB, and more importantly the players and the Players’ Association, woke up to the fact that they had to work together and get along. Every labor agreement since 1994 has been solved; every labor agreement before 1994 always resulted in a lockout, a work stoppage, or a strike.

And the very fact that it has competition makes that national-pastime status even the more important. The fact that it has competition from so many other sports is a very, very interesting phenomenon, but it doesn’t diminish from the fact that when something happens in baseball, it’s here; it’s on the front page of the New York Times. Rarely do other sports have that moment in the sun and baseball always does.

This is the only team sport that doesn’t march up and down a field, a court, or a rink. It’s not soccer, it’s not football, it’s not basketball or hockey. It’s the only team sport without a clock. It’s the only team sport in which the defense has the ball all the time. It’s the only team sport in which the person scores, and not the ball. It’s the only team sport that has an irregular field; every park is unique. If I told you that my gridiron was 105 yards, it wouldn’t be a gridiron. If I told you that my basketball court was over [regulation size], it wouldn’t be basketball. Foul territories are different, and it matters, because unlike other team sports, you can win or lose a World Series in foul territory.

Baseball is the greatest game that has ever been invented. There is nothing like it. In all the other sports you go to your best player all the time. You hand off to O.J. Simpson, or you throw it to Jerry Rice, or you inbound the ball to Michael Jordan. Derek Jeter comes up only once very nine times at bat. David Ortiz comes up only once every nine times at bat. You often have to rely on some little infielder that you just brought up from Triple-A, for your whole season. Think Bucky Dent. Think Kevin Millar drawing a walk in the fourth game of the ALCS in 2004.

This is just a spectacular game. I don’t even know why, with these simple yes-no, ugh kind of warfares that take place in other sports, that we’re even having to remind ourselves why this game is so perfect. And it teaches us about loss. You fail seven times out of 10, which would be unacceptable in any other sport. You’d be gone, sent packing. As a hitter, if you do that for 15 years, you might go into the Hall of Fame. I know that’s a cliché—failing seven times out of 10—because I get on-base percentage, but that’s the essential draw when you invite people in to understand what this sport means.

DL:
What has Moneyball, and the infusion of advanced stats, meant to the game?

KB:
I think they have been, like many things are, a double-edged sword. Clearly baseball needed to come up to the late 20thcentury, and now the 21stcentury, with statistical appreciation. Bill James is a genius who I don’t have enough adjectives in my pocket to bestow on. But at the same time, the hardened-fact statistics don’t always work.

The Yankees aren’t able to buy success, even using these methods. A small-market team with good leadership… the intangibles still matter. Bill James, who I have the greatest respect for, says that there is no such thing as a clutch hitter. You can’t tell that to Boston fans and David Ortiz. Then you look at Derek Jeter. I’m a Boston fan, and therefore a Yankee hater, and you watch him dive into the stands and come up bloody to catch a foul ball. Or you find him on the wrong side of the third base line to catch an errant throw from the right fielder, or pitch the ball to Posada to tag out a standing Jeremy Giambi—one of the greatest defensive plays of all time—you don’t have a statistic for that.

It’s a wonderful way to collect and understand, but we poke fun at it a little bit in the section that starts off with Jon Miller talking about VORPVORP?!—and trying to decide… sometimes you can get so deluged by statistics that you lose sight of some of the other things. But they have revolutionized the game and made it possible for smaller teams to compete, like the Oakland Athletics and the Tampa Bay Rays.

DL:
Historically, how important was 2004 beyond New England and Red Sox Nation?

KB:
I think it’s hugely important. It was the greatest comeback in our sport, so that makes it important, and I think that because for so long, and particularly those years—as Howard Bryant and Tom Verducci pointed out—the Red Sox and the Yankees were sort of it. Among a population of so many others in baseball, it all seemed to end up with them, at the time. Fortunately, that’s now not true. We’ve had as much diversity of winners as almost all of the other major sports, and I think that bodes well for baseball, that it’s not always just Yankees-Red Sox, which for a while was the dynamic of it.

But by no means is it the focus of our film. The Red Sox in 2004 is a scene in our film, but so are the Atlanta Braves with Bobby Cox and Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. So is finding out about where Latin players are coming from, and I think the longest scene in the whole film is the home-run chase in 1998. Barry Bonds is an essential biographical narrative of the film. Steroids occupy more space than anything; it’s just sitting there among the major events of the past two decades.

DL:
From a historical perspective, just how important is the steroid era?

KB:
In the scheme of the negatives of baseball it’s maybe two or three in position. I think that the gambling scandal, as epitomized by the Black Sox scandal in 1919, would probably be No. 1. I guess I’d put steroids either No. 2 or No. 3, and if it was No. 3 I’d say that the exclusion of African-Americans for six decades would be No. 2. You could argue that was the worst thing that baseball has ever done. Should there be asterisks next to Babe Ruth’s name because he never had to face Satchel Paige or play against Josh Gibson, who once hit 70 home runs in a season?

When African-Americans were belatedly let into the National League in almost a quota system, one or two per team, they won the MVP nine out of 11 years. That tells you what was missing in baseball. So maybe I should say that the exclusion of African-Americans is No. 1, and gambling, as epitomized by the Black Sox scandal—it was rampant in other places—would be No. 2. That would put steroids at No 3.

DL:
Is Barry Bonds, in many ways, the anti Babe Ruth?

KB:
No, not at all, and I think that what we were trying to prove is that Barry Bonds is much more complicated, and that people have found it very convenient to make him, and now Roger Clemens, the poster boys of this [scandal]. But as the Mitchell Report suggests, hundreds if not thousands of players, over those years, used performance-enhancing drugs, and to have it come down to one player is unfortunate. Now obviously that player broke some of the most hallowed records ever: single-season home runs, with 73, and the lifetime, with 762.

That concerned us, but we also have to remember that there weren’t that many more .300 hitters, nobody hit .406 like Ted Williams did in 1941, nobody had a 56-game hitting streak like Joe DiMaggio also had in 1941, no pitcher won 40 games, or even 35 or 30, which would have easily been the statistical equivalent of hitting 73 home runs as Bonds did in 2001. There weren’t more strikeouts. It just seems that it extended some pitchers’ careers and inflated a single-season, and therefore also a cumulative, lifetime home run record.

As we’ve passed out of the steroid scandal, we’ve seen that Major League Baseball has gone from having the worst testing of professional sports to the very best. We’ve seen Manny Ramirez lose part of his season, last year, for taking performance-enhancing drugs, and we’ve seen, most importantly, that the 50-home run season is a rarity. In 1977 it was George Foster, in 1990 it was Cecil Fielder, and then all of a sudden everybody seemed to be able to hit 50 home runs. Now, it looks like this year there will be one person, Jose Bautista, which seems like a bizarre, freak-show accomplishment, and who knows, maybe we’ll find out through testing that he did it or he didn’t. Or maybe he is sneaky enough that he has something that has helped him elude the testers.

The real sadness of the steroid scandal is that we’ll never know. We’ll never know for sure about Derek Jeter, we’ll never know for sure about Albert Pujols, we’ll never know for sure if some of these greatest stars, who we’ve assumed are clean, didn’t. For so long, so little was done and so little was sought after. And the culprits are not just the players who have made the personal decisions. There is also the Players’ Association, which protected them, and Major League Baseball, which turned the other way. There was the media, which killed Steve Wilstein when he brought up the andro in Mark McGwire’s locker—his open locker—during the 1998 chase. And there are the fans, who just wanted home runs. “Chicks dig the long ball.”

Nobody was going to get in the way of that party until all of a sudden it got so gaudy, and so impossibly decadent, that somebody—an outside source—said, “Hey, stop.” Fortunately, baseball has.

DL:
In contrasting Bonds and Ruth, I was also referring to the idea of the great American sports hero. Is that something that still exists?

KB:
As John Thorn says in the film, there is nothing intrinsically valuable about hitting a ball with a bat. A hero is a relative thing. We had a media culture that forgave Babe Ruth for enormous amounts of sordid information that they never published. As Joe Torre said to us, between interviews, “I don’t think I could play today, just because of the scrutiny.” That’s the difference between a guy who won the MVP in 1971 and now. Babe Ruth couldn’t play today. He’d be drummed out for political insensitivity. He’d have to take courses. There was all the stuff he was smoking, all the hot dogs he was eating, the cheating—all that sort of stuff would be exposed. He wouldn’t be given a pass like he was in his time.

There are other heroes in our lives: our parents who raised us, the mothers who give their forbearances, the soldiers who fight for us, the politicians who keep us together and don’t drive us apart. But Tom Boswell, a great sportswriter for the Washington Post, says that players have mythic qualities. These people gain in stature in a much more important way if we make them human and understand that they are human, and understand their human foibles. Then, just as they lose their mythic qualities, the game becomes richer.

DL:
How does baseball mirror society when it comes to politics? Today’s political atmosphere might be best described as polarizing.

KB:
I don’t think it mirrors that so much. In a larger sense, you normally think of American history as just politics, presidents and wars, and we thought that “Baseball” was a sequel to our Civil War series—no joke—because it dealt with all of those things, but also immigration, assimilation, labor, and race—central themes of America. In that respect, the rise of Latin and Asian players is an important continuum of the progress of integration in baseball.

We talk about labor and management, the nature of heroes, popular culture, the growth and decay and now the rebirth of cities as stadiums are built, and so many other things. I wouldn’t say that it mirrors exactly the polarization that has taken place in our politics—yet—but maybe that will emerge and we’ll be covering it when, God willing, we get an opportunity to do “The Eleventh [Inning].”

DL:
Do you see “The Tenth Inning” as covering a single era in baseball, or do the last two decades actually encompass more than one?

KB:
I think that it’s really one era. Obviously, it has within it different motifs and fugues and rhythms and aspects to it. Boswell was writing about [steroids] in 1988 and other people were talking about it in the 1990s and no one was listening; Steve Wilstein was vilified for bringing up andro in the middle of the home run chase that no one wanted interrupted. In “The Tenth Inning,” Bob Costas says that people in baseball want to pride themselves when they notice when a pitcher’s arm has dropped or when a batter’s stance has changed or when an outfielder takes a couple of steps backwards, but they didn’t notice that people came into the locker room and looked like they had been inflated. His outrage is palpable.

DL:
How important is Ichiro to baseball history?

KB:
He is hugely important. He passed Wee Willie Keeler for the number of consecutive seasons with more than 200 hits, so he definitely goes into the Mount Rushmore, or pantheon, of it. He transcends his Asian origin. He’s just an extraordinary ballplayer and he offers a great counterpoint to, as Bob Costas says in our film, “The Bludgeon-Ball Era.”

DL:
How much racism exists in baseball today?

KB:
Issues of race and ethnicity are always a part of our larger society, but the great news is that baseball has more often than not led. That’s one of the reasons why we could claim that the original “Baseball” series was a sequel to “The Civil War.” The first real progress in civil rights, after the Civil War, took place not in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama or a lunch counter in Virginia or another place in the south, nor in the Supreme Court with Brown versus the Board of Education, but rather on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson not only went out to play first base that day, but also profoundly changed American social history.

Baseball has quite often led, and I think that right now it is a superb meritocracy. Nobody cares where you came from as long you know how to do it. And Ozzie Guillen’s statements are factual. The economics of recruiting Asian players are quite different from the economics of Latin players. They come fully-formed and therefore mostly expensive. Latin players are sort of scooped up in great numbers within the Latin countries and sent to the academies where they’re either pushed up or out, and that’s at a fraction of the cost it takes to acquire an Ichiro or a Daisuke Matsuzaka, or a Hideki Matsui. Those players are just as great, if not greater, but there’s a cost.

DL:
For every Ozzie Guillen there are dozens of Derek Jeters who rarely say anything beyond clichés. Has baseball become less colorful?

KB:
I think it has to some extent. These are human beings and they know the way in which the media can be not just friendly but also bite and do so incredibly unfairly. So they’ve learned how to insulate themselves and in part that’s because of the salaries that they make. Perhaps insulate isn’t the right word; it isolates them. But it’s kind of a complicated picture where we need more nuanced views. The media is snarky; the media is “got you;” the media is killer; the media is fair; the media is unfair; the media doesn’t tell the truth or doesn’t get its facts right; it doesn’t do its homework. And a lot of time it is incredibly important when it comes to rooting out important stories and advancing the narrative of baseball. They also vote on who gets into the Hall of Fame, so it’s one of the wonderfully complicated dynamics that we try to address in our film.

DL:
In making the film, to what degree were you a reporter, and to what degree an ambassador for the game of baseball?

 KB: Well, first of all, I’m never an ambassador for how great the game is. I happen to be a filmmaker and not a reporter who is interested in history; I’m not a journalist. But I am nonetheless a fan and that fandom can’t help but be consciously, or subconsciously, reflected. At the same time, we are dealing with, almost unlike all of the other films I’ve made, recent history. There were moments in our editing where present-day events changed what we said. To that extent, I guess we became junior journalists, but it was important for us to understand that first and foremost we needed to be good storytellers. It always helps if you like the story you’re telling, and the underlying power of baseball, which we say in the opening moments of the film, is that it’s the best game ever invented.  

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