Ken Burns' New Documentary Takes a Nuanced Look at Baseball's Steroid Era

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Ken Burns: Someday Barry Bonds will be in the Hall of Fame.
Ken Burns: Someday Barry Bonds will be in the Hall of Fame.
Ken Burns, the nation's most prolific documentarian, has chosen for his next opus baseball's steroid era as a postscript to his 1994 landmark Baseball series. Entitled The Tenth Inning, a two-part, four-hour documentary that will air September 28-29, the film delves into the rise of Latino and Asian players, the proliferation of new (and smaller) ballparks, interleague play, wild cards, sabermetrics and skyrocketing salaries.

But it is the revelations about performance-enhanching drugs and all the angst and rage that has spawned that most occupies Burns' attention.


For Burns, a student of the game and ardent Red Sox fan, the notion of somehow imposing an asterisk beside the astonishing feats of, say a Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens or a Mark McGwire, should never be permitted.

It saddens Burns how quickly we turn on people who were once our heroes.
It saddens Burns how quickly we turn on people who were once our heroes.
"Take Babe Ruth," Burns begins in an interview earlier today at the Chase Park Hotel. "He never played with blacks. He never traveled like they do now or played night games. Should we put an asterisk on him? No, of course not."

In taking a non-judgmental approach to the sensitive subject of steriods, Burns notes that even with the widespread usage of enhancements, still no one reached.400, surpassed DiMaggio's 56 consecutive hit games, nor was there any appreciable increase in the number of players hitting .300.

"We were all complicit in this," says Burns. "There is a lot of complicated shades of grey here. As a society, we've always thought that there's a pharmacalogical solution to everything."

Burns says it saddens him the way the public has turned so venomously against its one-time heroes. "We dispose of people so quickly."

In an age of globalization, deregulation and speculation, posits Burns, The Tenth Inning tries to demonstrate that the national pasttime continues to be mirror of the country -- at its best and at its worst.

A good deal of the film that Burns has made with his longtime producing partner Lynn Norvick is devoted to Bonds, the home run king, of whom Burns predicts will eventually be enshrined in Cooperstown, as opposed to the "one-dimensional" McGwire..

"Did Bonds have a phenomenal work ethic? Yes. Was he a student of the game? Yes. Did he take steroids? Yes."

Bonds, says Norvick, is a fascinating subject -- godson of the always press-wary Willie Mays; son of ex-Giants Bobby Bonds, a boozer who was never particularly popular with his teammates.

The film chronicles the thrilling 1998 home run chase between Sosa and McGwire, a spectacle, says Burns, that instilled within Bonds so much resentment and jealousy that he too would make the fateful decision to join the steroids club.



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