The Tenth Inning, the two-part, four-hour update of Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary Baseball, airs tonight and tomorrow night (September 28-29) on PBS. We caught up with the show’s creator and co-director, Ken Burns, at Yankee Stadium last week before the tribute to George Steinbrenner.
Are you here, we asked Burns, “because you’re an admirer of The Boss?
“Oh, puh-leese,” he shot back. “Springsteen is The Boss. Steinbrenner was Darth Vader.”
But what about his transformation of the Yankees from a second-division, second-rate organization to a world champion, multibillion-dollar corporation”
“Give me a break. Steinbrenner is the guy who woke up at third base and thought he hit a triple. It’s amazing how all this guy’s sleaze is suddenly forgotten. Who else would have hired a shady gambler to follow one of his players around just to get dirt on them?” (As Steinbrenner did to Dave Winfield.)
Well, I wanted to reply, how about previous Yankee owners who hired private detectives to follow Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin around — but I let that one pass.
Anyway, I tell Burns, it seems as if I finally outed him as a Red Sox fan.
“I’m a filmmaker first. My co-director, Lynn Novick, is the Yankees fan, so it all balances out.”
“Ah, hah,” I say. “‘It balances out.’ So you are a Red Sox fan?”
“I wasn’t born that way. I was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Michigan, and came to New England too late to get caught up in all that ’67 Impossible Dream stuff. But I admit that 2004 was my favorite season. I’ve never seen that kind of enthusiasm in baseball fans. Look at the World Series victory parade. Proportionately, I’ll bet they had five times the number of people in the streets that they have for a Yankees parade.”
“Right,” I say, “and they probably did that just by emptying all the bars.”
So, now having covered almost 170 years of baseball history, who are his favorite players?
“I love the great players because they’re great, but I love the great, quirky ones even better — Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams, Henry Aaron — I like the guys who stand out. They’d be enjoyable to watch even if they weren’t great. Remember Oil Can Boyd? He’s my kind of player. I’d love to have seen him pitch and had a few beers with him. I like Dusty Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. They stand out, they’re quirky.”
What about doing an “Eleventh Inning” in a decade or so? Anything happen this year you’d already like to cover?
“What about Armando Galarraga’s perfect game that wasn’t? I’d lead off with that.”
How does Burns think we’ll feel, by that time, about the whole performance-enhancing-drug era?
“I think by then we’ll have learned to put it behind us. I wish that steroids had never been introduced into baseball, but we can’t let our disdain for the drugs and some of the records they may have distorted to hold all of baseball hostage. We have to accept it as art of our culture, forgive, and move on, if only because it reveals such a basic human frailty that we can all relate to it. Like Chris Rock says in The Tenth Inning, ‘If someone said to you can make the same money as Steven Spielberg if you just take a pill, you’d take the pill. You know you would.'”