Getting Pumped for Burns' “Baseball” Return

Labor strife, steroids and more bring the PBS filmmaker into extra innings. We’ll be watching from the edge of our seat…

In his classic routine on the differences between football and baseball, George Carlin noted that the action on the gridiron is rigidly timed while the National Pastime is essentially timeless.

"We don't know when it's going to end – might have extra innings!" the comic said.

Carlin's humor-rooted-in-truth observation comes to mind with this week’s welcome continuation – it's not a sequel, really – of filmmaker Ken Burns' epic 1994 documentary, "Baseball."

The new two-part, four-hour film, called "Baseball: The Tenth Inning," premieres Tuesday on PBS, and tackles 1993 through 2008, taking the game and the country through a generation of greed, cheating, tragedy and triumph.

You don't have to be on steroids to be pumped for Burns' latest look at baseball life on and off the field. You need to come to the game, though, open to accepting Burns' belief that the sport is a sun-splashed prism through which to view modern American history.

He made the case very well in the original 18-hour-plus series, focusing on the disgrace of baseball's insidious color line and its smashing by Jackie Robinson in 1947 against a backdrop of racial strife in America – a sad legacy of both the game and the country.

We're looking forward to watching Burns mine rich material from recent years: The 1994 "Millionaires vs. Billionaires" strike that nearly destroyed the game. The 1998 now-tainted Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa seesaw homerun battle that fueled baseball's resurgence. The ongoing steroids scandal, which has yielded indictments and a slew of sullied homerun kings who probably will wind up associated more with asterisks and shame than uniform numbers and the Hall of Fame.

Then there's how baseball gave the country a modicum of diversion after 9/11, the influx of players from around the world and the breaking of the Curse of the Bambino by the Boston Red Sox in 2004.

The criticism Burns' documentaries sometimes generate is similar to the knock on baseball: the pace is too slow. We’re not buying it for either the filmmaker or the game. Even if his baseball-as-life theory can get a little overblown at times, Burns’ thoughtful approach is a reflection of the game and its beauty.

Baseball is a game that’s experienced in the mind as much as in between the white chalk lines. The sport looms large in our culture – even during football season.

We'll be watching Burns’ latest diamonds-are-forever adventure, and trust he’ll keep returning to the summer game, whose eternal hope of renewal somehow still shines amid the flaws.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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