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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Talk About 'Baseball: The Tenth Inning'

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 28th 2010 4:00PM
Logo for 'Baseball: The Tenth Inning'Fans of Ken Burns' 'Baseball' documentary should get their DVRs ready tonight, as PBS airs the first part of the four-hour, two-part follow-up to that landmark 1994 series. Called 'Baseball: The Tenth Inning,' Burns and co-producer Lynn Novick take a look at the historic and changing baseball landscape from 1993 to the present.

Every major issue from this time period will be explored: the 1994 strike, steroids, 'Moneyball,' the shattering of home run records by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, the rise of the Yankees and Red Sox, the increased number of Latin players in the game, and the impact of Japanese stars like Ichiro Suzuki.

Bonds, as you'd expect, is the main character in this drama, and steroids are one of the biggest topics. When Burns and Novick presented the program to the TCA press tour in August, I sat with them to talk about the documentary and how tough it is to boil down an era that has alreday been covered and dissected more than any in the sport's history into four compelling hours. Let's just say that fans of the A's, Rays and Twins aren't going to be very happy.

When you did the original miniseries, you were summarizing a period that a lot of people either didn't live through, or there wasn't much media exposure beyond your hometown team. How tough was it to summarize a period of time, the '90s and 2000s, where baseball was on all the time, every channel, and on 'SportsCenter?'

Ken: It's the tyranny of choice. We had originally started out with this going to be a two-hour update and obviously it went to a two two hour (episodes) and a lot of that has to do, less with tyranny choice than with the fact that there are so many things going on. The strike and steroids on one hand, the Braves and the Yankees on the other, the rise Latin players and home-run chase, Ichiro, and 9/11, and the Giants and all the stuff that we covered, there wasn't enough real estate to do it.

It's tough because we also had to deal with the fact that because it's recent history, not only do you have the plethora of available material to use, we also look at that recent history from what we know today. It was really important to recreate for our audience the feelings that happened as they were happening. It created a narrative dexterity that was not easy to come by. I think we struggled really long and hard.

It's one of the most complex films we've ever had to do because it's so structurally complex. A lot of the complexity is where does this narrative comes from? Does it come from now, looking back and understanding that (Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds) was juiced that summer? Or does it come from then, meaning it permits you to see things as they were happening? The interesting thing with this film, unique among films was it was both. Sometimes that shift would take place within a scene or within a paragraph.

Well, it's also tough to keep it fresh too...

Ken: Because everyone knows it. Or thinks they know it.

Lynn: Yes it's true but than again, people watching this might be 15 years old, and with 1998, we might as well be talking about 1947. It's a really weird concept.

Ken: 9/11 is ancient history to people. We've shown it to kids and they're like: "Woah that was a big deal." They've heard about it, but we stopped showing how we watched that footage for days on end and then we stopped showing it. So we consciously and deliberately put those planes into the building to show people what it was like. We talk about it but it's been completely abstracted that it's become shorthand.

A big example of your talking about seeing things from two different perspectives is Barry Bonds, breaking McGwire's single season home run record in 2001. I remember back then being pretty nonchalant about it, because by then everyone was suspicious of Barry Bonds, and they hated him anyway, and I was a Yankee fan.

Lynn: You didn't have to be a Yankee fan not to love Barry Bonds.

That's what we tried to show.

True, but there was that anticipation there.

Ken: In many places it was very exciting, and yet it also wasn't. We were muted by 9/11, we also had begun to suspect that something else was going on. Barry Bonds was being himself as we had established in the preceeding two hours, was that he was not always an agreeable character.

To us, what was so difficult to do was to calibrate exactly how each of those elements would weigh in. How much would 9/11 still be resonating, how much would Barry's personality be a factor and how much would we respond to it? How much would we be starting to begin to whisper about steroids? We talked about that whispering, we ended our first half with him going to balance the scales after watching these pumped-up sluggers do their thing (in 1998).

We've established Mark McGwire as a teammate of Jose Conseco who was already a juicer, and (Sammy) Sosa has been set up to achieve great success, but also great failure. So you know there's the elements of classic tragedy enveloping you. For us, it was what was the specific calibration of the information at any given time.

Lynn: It started out as sometimes in certain iterations (of the documentary) it was very enthusiastic, huge overblown celebration. Other times in the process it got too muted, and we had to realize that people did cheer him, he did get 72 home runs, We kind of go there a little bit. We really vacillated before we found stuff that worked.

And part of it was only three years after McGwire broke the record.

Ken: We were numbed by that stuff and numbed by 9/11

That's the irony for Bonds because here he is, the greatest player, and he says "Home runs? OK, I'll give you home runs," he does it, and then it's like: Oh, someone already did that.

Ken: The game is up and everything has been exposed.

Lynn: But he's still going through the motions.

I guess it was obvious to you guys that Barry Bonds would be the main character to this story.

Ken: Absolutely. We knew where it would begin.

It's amazing when you look back at Bonds' early years with the Pirates, especially his rookie year. Did that shock you that he was that small?

Ken: As a matter of fact, in that early writing of that first scene, where he failed to throw out Sid Bream, we really loaded up on the adjectives to describe him, but then we pulled off. Yes he's skinny, yes he's lithe, but we're seeing it. We didn't need to pile on the fact that he's so skinny. You'll see it when he changes size and his head size is changing, his suit size. But yeah, it was, this is a very complicated tragedy and also a story about our resilient game and as Howard Bryant says, is it possible to have both at the same time? And the answer is yes.

Lynn: Baseball would rather some other player had broken some of those records and not Barry Bonds. You don't get to choose who breaks these records. People didn't like Hank Aaron either. Hank Aaron was treated abominably.

Well, that was because of his race.

Lynn: But still, Roger Marris was treated horribly. He was treated like he didn't deserve to wear Babe Ruth's shoes, and he should go back where he came from. How dare he presume to break Babe Ruth's records? Some of these things are not new in baseball, but Barry Bonds is a particular case obviously.

Well, he brought a lot of it on himself.

Lynn: Absolutely.

A lot of people, when baseball writers write about baseball players and say he's a jerk or a he's a good guy, the main thought from readers is, "Who cares how he treats reporters?" In the case of Bonds, did it go beyond that?

Ken: Yes. Because first of all, he's the son of Bobby Bonds who was himself a handful, not just for reporters but for the baseball community. Because as we now know of a complicated biography which doesn't excuse or doesn't perhaps fully explain but nevertheless is instructive. He's an out-sized talent, almost instantaneously much more than his father and he's beginning to resemble his godfather Willie Mays in terms of his accomplishments.

And Mays in his last year had his force field up. I think when you have these big talent and big attributes of personality, it goes beyond the sports writers. Obviously the fan doesn't care and that sports writer rarely writes about that because they have to deal with them every day. If he writes about what an a--hole Barry Bonds is, he's not going to be allowed in the locker room.

When a sportswriter says that -- Jim Rice for example didn't get into the Hall of Fame until recently because the writers didn't like him. And it feels like sometimes they're punitive to players.

Lynn: They are.

And fans just seem to shrug their shoulders.

Ken: Well they don't know. They're not in a position to mediate or understand the dynamics of it. Those of us who watch it more intently can understand the way sportswriters can collectively and individually make or break a Hall of Fame career. I've watched Andre Dawson. He didn't suck up in the way that certain baseball writers liked him to suck up so some of those powerful baseball writers have been able to hold players back.

Lynn: One of the things this new era has brought about is the huge salaries these players make. They're distanced from the fans but they're distanced from the writers who cover them. They don't feel like they need the writers as much. What do I need to talk to you for? I'm making a million dollars.

They can tweet or blog or pull a LeBron.

Ken: Right.

Lynn: They don't need someone to write about them. That can cause them to be very dismissive. We had a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor but reporters who start off as huge baseball fans, that's why they want to be a baseball writer, as Marcos (Breton) says, sometimes we get to know people too well. We got to know Barry Bonds too well. But not just with Bonds.

Ken: In changing media it's also, they're smart. They understand papers are dead.

One of the big criticisms of baseball coverage in the 2000s was that it was too Yankees or Red Sox-oriented. Were you afraid that the second half of the documentary was too Yankees/Red Sox-oriented?

Ken: No, well we were mindful of it. It actually is a little less than half so there is more than half of it but you're absolutely right. It's hard not to cover the important stories and you'd be hard-pressed to not say "What would you have done instead?" The greatest comeback in the history of the game [when the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit to take the 2004 ALCS from the Yankees]. And we also acknowledge it too which takes a little bit of the onus off. It's discussed. This was the black hole that sucked up the rest of the nation and the rest of teams were like "Hey, hello we're here." But it all came down to the drama of those two teams.

Lynn: Well you know what? We have a lot of really great stories. We have Ichiro on the Mariners, we have the Braves, we have Barry Bonds and the Giants...

Ken: And the steroids don't really touch the Yankees or the Red Sox.

The 'Moneyball' aspect of the game is mentioned in the film, but you didn't go into it too much. Fans of teams like the A's, the Twins, the Rays, the teams that have used low revenue models and become successful in this decade, do you think you're going to hear from fans of those teams?

Lynn: Hopefully, that means that they're watching.

Ken: The greatest compliment in 18-and-a-half hours (of the original 'Baseball') was people telling us consistently for 16 years of what we left out. Sometimes it's parochial: "Why didn't you use our team?" Because they lost every year. Or how much did you do on the Detroit Tigers? A lot when they're winning, I mean it's not insulting it's just true.

If you have to boil down, the single emblematic moments of the decade, I think we did a good job. Inevitably we will hear and we will welcome it because it is a conversation. We are not saying this is the encyclopedia, the Bible, the dictionary of the era, this is a Yankee fan and a Red Sox fan's take on what's happened. We bent over backwards to make sure our opposing teams got the best possible treatment but didn't focus to much on it. How many passes we made taking out Yankee stuff, taking out Red Sox stuff, to make sure we were not yielding to some subconscious bias.

Because 'Moneyball' was such a big part of the game in the '00s, I'm actually surprised I didn't see Bill James interviewed. When was the decision to minimize it?

Ken: It's there. I understand what you're saying but I would have to say show me the world championships. Yes it was successful but the other (version of) Moneyball, where "I have got a big wallet an I'm going to spend it on this person" is a much more qualifying judge of success.

And even then you're subject to all the vagueries of baseball, human error, injuries, circumstances. So it's not slighting it in anyway if you mention it and say it's a significant thing, talk about the success, but also suggest that there might not be a competing version that also obtains. That David Ortiz is a clutch hitter. All of these guys will tell you there's no such thing as a clutch hitter, there is. Derek Jeter, David Ortiz has more walkoff hits than any player in baseball.

People can argue that the first team to think in 'Moneyball' fashion would actually be the Yankees, but they had money too.

Lynn: It doesn't have to be either or.

Ken: The Red Sox hired Bill James. At one point we did elaborate on the early ownership of the Red Sox but we thought it was too much Red Sox. We did a biography of Bill James, separated it form the Moneyball but after a while you go OK, OK too much Red Sox.

Lynn: You have to balance it a little bit. You have to have dessert with your brussel sprouts. The game moments, the really great game moments need to be there in the right proportions and that's always a tricky thing. Some of it's there but maybe not as explicit.

Where did you guys find Marcos Breton?

Lynn: Marcos? He, luckily for us, he had written a book called 'Away Games.' He went to the Dominican Republic in the late '80s and followed some young prospects including Miguel Tejada who was a kid and the book ends with him making the major leagues but some of them didn't make it. So we read the book and thought this would be great. But then when we met him, we realized we're not just going to talk about the Dominican Republic. He's been in San Francisco covering Barry Bonds form the beginning, he's a Giants fan.

Ken: He's a Mexican-American and knows what it's like to be left out of the black/white dynamic.

Lynn: He doesn't write much about sports anymore. He's a columnist and he mostly writes about politics. But he still has a soft spot.

When you do your documentaries, you always find that emotional center. How does that bubble to the surface for you?

Ken: Naturally, just authentically. When we ask questions of people, it's not because we want you to fill in from paragraph two to paragraph three on page six of episode six. We're just asking questions to get answers out of you and we listen. Inevitably it's like wow, and sometimes it isn't. When it is, also on transcript it'ss good and you do the selects and together it's great, then all of a sudden you find yourself gravitating emotionally to people commenting on one unbelievable play, it's something you believe in the water of that particular episode and you allow it to emerge organically.

That's a huge difference from what we do. There are things we do trust still photographs, we record our music in advance, and music often dictates how the pace and rhythm of a scene proceeds but I think it's permitting the writing to not loiter over the shooting and the shooting not to loiter over the writing. And be willing to change all the time.

And when you pick Mike Barnicle to talk about the Red Sox... that's like slam dunk.

Ken: But we had no idea that he'd be as stunning as he was. So Mike is in the second episode what Marcos was in the first episode, being the emotional center of gravity of the force.

Lynn: A huge part of our job is choosing the right person to interview. If you point a camera at someone and ask halfway-intelligent questions, people are just so smart and thoughtful and so open, it's not that hard. But part of it is figuring out who would be good to talk abut this. Sometimes we don't get it right. Half the time we ask someone a question that isn't in their wheelhouse. You know it's right.

Let's talk about some people who are controversial who you think are going to make the Hall of Fame or not. First of all, Ichiro is not controversial but will he make the Hall of Fame?

Lynn: Yes.

100 percent.

A-Rod, who's at 600 home runs and counting.

Ken: Yes, I think so. But he's the most interesting case to be because as Marcos said with Sosa, McGwire will probably not get in. Alex Rodriguez, with the admission of only taking steroids, conveniently only during the Texas years when they were in last place, the lies and everything that Selena Roberts wrote about that he had been taking since high school. I don't know, I assume he'll get in based on the numbers.

It's not like he's been bad to the writers.

Ken: He is so tone deaf, I imagine they might torture him a little bit.

Lynn: He's gotten better about that, sort of keeps his mouth shut.

Ken: He's pretty good about the slump that he just got out of. He did it with a good humor and I'd never seen him do it. You could see it on his face as he walked nack towards the dugout.

Roger Clemens.

Ken: I think he'll get in because of the same Marcos rules. By the time we figure he's taking (steroids after) moves to the Blue Jays he's already Hall of Fame.

Why didn't people think of pitchers as steroid users until now?

Lynn: Because of the strength. They should have though because pitching is the most devastating to your body.

Clemens had the same profile as Bonds.

Ken: Kind of a childish player too.

Lynn: More pitchers have tested positive for steroids than other players because you literally tear your arm off.

Ken: First people to experiment with steroids in baseball were pitchers. Let's not forget that Sandy Koufax when he finished pitching a game took cortisone prescribed by a doctor..

Lynn: One day steroids may be legal to make them heal better but right now they're not.

(Rafael) Palmiero.

Lynn: I think because he lied publicly. In this business that's not something that people forgive so fast. He said he had never taken steroids when he knew he had a positive test. That's a tough one.

Who among who's playing now, do you think will get int he Hall of Fame that people aren't expecting?

Ken: I have no idea because it takes a certain amount of endurance. The obvious ones are there because you look at Mariano Rivera.

I'm talking about more of the borderline players like the (Jorge) Posadas, the (Andy) Pettittes, even a guy like Wakefield.

None of those three.

Somebody's who's been round but complied statistics in a sneaky way. Lance Berkman.

Ken: Not after his debut (with the Yankees).

There are the obvious ones that are still playing now. Like Mariano Rivera, or Jeter.

Ken: David Ortiz, like a designated hitter who's been linked with steroids, this central figure of a Red Sox.

Lynn: And how about (Manny) Ramirez? If he tested positive in 2009, he had a whole career before that.

Ken: Manny shouldn't have a problem.

'Baseball: The Tenth Inning' starts airs on many PBS stations tonight and tomorrow night at 8PM ET. Check local listings for when it airs in your area.

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter.)

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Good interview, looking forward to the documentary.

BTW it's Mark McGwire not McGuire.

September 28 2010 at 5:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Carl's comment
Joel Keller

Thanks. It'll be fixed.

September 28 2010 at 6:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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