Jonathan Storm: 'Baseball: The Tenth Inning': Hey, we're still playing here

Summer of steroids: Young fans watching batting practice in St. Louis in 1998, year of the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home-run derby.
Summer of steroids: Young fans watching batting practice in St. Louis in 1998, year of the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home-run derby.
Posted: September 28, 2010

Not content with the 21 hours he was given when he made Baseball in 1994, Ken Burns returns Tuesday and Wednesday on WHYY TV12 with four more about the history of the game from 1990, when the original documentary ended. Installments of Baseball: The Tenth Inning air at 8 p.m. and repeat at 10 each night.

Because it's such recent history, there are few revelations in a frequently flat assemblage of interviews and highlights, with Wednesday's installment, featuring some of the greatest postseason flops and comebacks of all time, the more appealing of the two.

The scheduling is even more boneheaded than usual for PBS, coming in the last week of the major-league season, when three National League teams are vying for two postseason spots and teams that have made the playoffs jockey between resting key players and locking down home-field advantage.

Wouldn't it have been appropriate to have four leisurely hours of the Summer Game in February or March, in anticipation of the new season?

Phillies fans will find little to cheer. Lots of great and quirky teams get lots of lens time, but not the great Phils teams from 2007 to 2010 or the pennant-winning ragtag '93 Phils, though Joe Carter's World Series-winning home run off Mitch Williams is presented, without comment, as one of the era's great moments. Citizens Bank Park doesn't even make it into the montage of all the homey new ballyards that supposedly helped save the game.

The 2008 World Series, which the Phillies won (after a 28-year drought), is never mentioned. For the 2009 World Series, when the Yankees beat the Phillies, there are a couple of showings of the same play in which Johnny Damon steals second and then wanders down to third because no Phils are stationed there.

Burns and codirector Lynn Novick see the two big stories of the era as the use of steroids and the emergence of foreign (Latin, and some Asian) players. The three important teams are, sigh, the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Braves.

The Sox are Burns' favorite team, and they did have a renaissance. Sure, the Yanks won a quarter of the World Series in the 20 years covered by the documentary, and the Braves took the pennant nearly half the time, but who needs to be reminded?

Barry Bonds, presented as a player who might have been declared the greatest of all time if not for his steroid abuse and home-run fixation after Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's drug-assisted 1998 home-run derby, stars in the show. Sportswriters and commentators try to psychoanalyze him while he crushes pitch after pitch into the outfield seats.

Far more interesting is a segment on Ichiro Suzuki, the astonishingly consistent (a record 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons) little Mariners batsman from Japan. Few Philadelphians have seen much of him. Judging by one clip, Phils closer Brad Lidge and his dirt-defying slider wouldn't have much effect on Ichiro. He strokes a single after the pitch bounces in front of the plate.

A more familiar face, the sometimes enigmatic but always entertaining Pedro Martinez, has lots to say, even if he does comment that fans in Boston, where the unlikely small-statured Dominican ruled as a Red Sox ace before eventually making his way to Philadelphia, are the most loyal in baseball.

Burns buddy Doris Kearns Goodwin provides insights into the irrationality of fans, her best quote being, "Fans think they know more than the manager, and, sometimes, they don't."

No one knows more about making long documentaries than Ken Burns. The Tenth Inning fits his pattern, deeply researched, populated with opinionated experts, but at the end of a long and exciting baseball season, it can seem as excessive as stealing second when your team has a five-run lead.


Jonathan Storm:

Television

Baseball: The Tenth Inning

8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday on WHYY TV12


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com.

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