BOSTON — In 1994 Ken Burns' series “Baseball” was a grand slam home run, a nine-“inning” exploration of the American pastime that was the most popular documentary in American television history. But shortly before it aired in September, the game’s history was abruptly changing. Baseball players had gone on strike, a work stoppage that would ultimately result in the first-ever cancellation of the World Series.
The strike and its devastating consequences for Major League Baseball was the first of many dramatic events — “among the most consequential in the history of the game,” said Burns — that moved him and his filmmaking partner Lynn Novick to revisit the game and add “The Tenth Inning,” airing in two chapters on PBS Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.
Since the original film, baseball not only endured the devastating strike, but a burgeoning steroids scandal that transformed some of the game’s greatest heroes into fallen idols.
“We have been drawn to the story because of the classical tragedy, the Shakespearean dimension, the hubris that has brought these great stars down,” said Burns. “When you’re in the midst of it, it feels really bad and the Cassandras among us will wring their hands and say, ‘The game is over.’ But in fact, we’ve made it through the steroids scandal and we’re looking at it through the backside now.”
Despite all the self-inflicted wounds that damaged the game over the past two decades, baseball has not only endured, but, the filmmakers insist, is once again thriving. No change has been more responsible for its revival than globalization, which has bolstered baseball both on and off the field. Burns and Novick talked to GlobalPost columnist Mark Starr about globalization and its impact on the American game.
GP: Globalization seems the biggest plus in an array of some pretty big minuses.
Novick: We completely agree. We weren’t interested in baseball for its own sake, but in how baseball helps us understand the world and what’s been happening in our society. Corporations don’t limit themselves by the boundaries of the United States and baseball is no different. On a business level, globalization has been great for the game. In terms of sheer talent on the field, it has been extraordinary for the game. On the other hand, we have to recognize that you have Third World countries where people are pursuing the unlikely dream of coming here and becoming the next Sammy Sosa. You have a situation where people are both being exploited and given incredible opportunities.
GP: Has globalization changed the game or just the face of the game?
Burns: We realized that baseball has always been two things at once. It has been a repository of carefully held verities for as long as the game has been existence and yet it is also this precise mirror of how we are now. Globalization has just strengthened the meritocracy that baseball has always been and that sometimes America in the larger world doesn’t keep up with. We’re in a period where we are demonizing immigrant populations that are coming to our shore. Yet baseball has not only been willing to absorb, but to exult in the great talent they brought here. The great Hispanic contribution to the game over the last 20 years was one of the catalysts for us making the film.
GP: Lynn suggests that the game has been a mixed bag for Third World nations.
Burns: Obviously, as they cast their nets out in Latin America for the cheaper talent and disgorge so many people who aren’t going to make it, it is bittersweet. But more than 40 percent of ballplayers are Hispanics and they have completely transformed the game. The most common names in baseball today are Rodriguez and Ramirez.
Novick: Filming in the Dominican Republic, I went in with the idea with the idea that these young boys are being plucked at 15 and 16 into the baseball academies and that most of them get used up and spit out at the other end. But it’s more complicated than that. With the lack of opportunity where they are coming from, even if they don’t make it to the major leagues as a superstar, sometimes they may wind up in America making a steady salary that they might otherwise not have.
GP: Obviously the Latin contributions are enormous. Is there a stylistic contribution too?
Burns: Just as the Negro Leagues helped to bring a different kind of style of play, the Latin players brought the same kind of spirit. When you go to the Dominican Republic and film these kids in bare feet on rocky back alleys swinging two-by-twos to hit rags wrapped in twine, you begin to see an elemental enthusiasm for the game that we haven’t experienced in this country for an awful long time.
GP: Do you see the talent pool expanding beyond its current boundaries?
Burns: As baseball has understood the global possibilities, we are seeing talent spring up in new areas. It’s an exciting notion that we may one day get the baseball equivalent of a Yao Ming and open up that extraordinary talent pool to Major League Baseball. It only makes the game better and brings us closer together.
GP: Your film has a wonderful interview with Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki. Fans have certainly learned to appreciate the skills of Japanese and Korean players.
Novick: The Asian players go to school for baseball in a way American kids do not. They develop mastery of the technical aspects of the game at a level that kids in America at that age don’t yet have. They have an extraordinary practice ethic quite aside from performance in the game. We worked on this film from not only an American perspective. Until we talked with Ichiro, we hadn’t thought about how important Ichiro is in Japan because he has been successful here.
GP: Baseball has always been viewed as a game interwoven with American fabric. Is there a limit to how much globalization fans might tolerate? Might baseball face a backlash that reflects current anti-immigration sentiments?
Burns: I don’t believe it for a second. If that’s the case, then America itself is wrong. Baseball is its natural pastime and its national reflection. The country can’t ignore globalization. Baseball led on the issue of race and integration of the game. Think of the challenge if you were a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and a racist. What do you do when Jackie Robinson arrives? Do you quit being a fan? Do you change allegiances? In more subtle ways, globalization forces us to rethink the nature of things. And while we periodically seem to be taking a step backwards — the anti-immigration movements of the early 20th century and now with the Tea Party — we still have a forward momentum that suggests this country is perpetually enriched by renewing itself with the spirit of immigrant labor.
GP: Do you think we are likely to see some political dynamics next season, with the MLB All-Star game scheduled for Arizona?
Burns: We made a conscious decision, with great regret, not to visit Arizona on our promotional tour. We don’t think [its new immigration laws] reflect well on what America is. Baseball is so far out ahead on this that we may be able — through the comments and protests of players and perhaps even Major League Baseball — join a much more intelligent discussion than what has been going on there for the last several months.
Novick: I don’t know if the Latin ball players will feel comfortable voicing a political opinion here.
GP: So bottom line, is baseball better off or worse off than when you left it almost two decades ago?
Novick: Much better. The game is tremendously resilient. It has endured and it will endure.