Sports

Baseball Nerd Discussions With Ken Burns Of PBS's 'The Tenth Inning'

Boston Red Sox Pedro Martinez

Pedro Martinez in action for the Boston Red Sox against the Anaheim Angels in 1999. V.J. Lovero/Sports Illustrated hide caption

itoggle caption V.J. Lovero/Sports Illustrated

As we discussed yesterday, PBS is running Ken Burns' follow-up to Baseball, which is called The Tenth Inning. The first half was last night; the second half is tonight. It's very entertaining and very well done, and yesterday, we talked about some of the challenges of making the film.

Today, it's all the baseball-nerd talk. Veterans Stadium, batters and pitchers, whether home runs are good or evil ... and, of course, whether it's a sad thing or the saddest thing when you find unexpected food at a ball game in Philadelphia. More excerpts from our conversation follow. (Keep in mind, this happened in late July/early August, so if what he's telling you is a little out of date, it's only because of the time lag.)

You talk in the film about how everything is slanting so heavily toward batters now. But you still see these…

Unbelievable pitching performances! Even in the midst of it. You're getting a Pedro Martinez. Who's like … he's reminding you of dominance we haven't seen since Sandy Koufax.

And the little [bunch of] perfect games…

Perfect game stuff, you've had – this year, there are so many pitchers. I spend most of my time with the box scores in the American League, but between the Marlins and the Padres and Jimenez in Colorado – who's having a rough patch – this is an unbelievable season for pitchers. The 50-home-run season is a rarity again, haaaaaallelujah, and if you look at it …

[muttered] I hate home runs.

You know … George Foster, I think, '77? Then Cecil Fielder in '90. Thirteen years [between guys who scored] fifty home runs. And all of a sudden, middle infielders are hitting 50 home runs? But now they're not anymore. And then you begin to look at it – since I finished the film, I've been looking back, trying to say – I'm an optimist, so I sort of feel like, the steroids years are in the rearview mirror mostly, there's stuff to be resolved, and there's still that never-answerable question about how to really do it, other than to just tell stories, the way we do about 1919 – still says Cincinnati won the World Series in 1919, but you have to tell a story about it. So we have to tell stories. We now know that Bobby Thomson was stealing the signs, he knew what Ralph Branca was going to throw, that changes things.

I was really surprised by that; I'd never heard that.

It just came out in the last few years, and they acknowledged that. Is that – there weren’t that many more .300 hitters. Nobody hit .400. Nobody had a 56-game hitting streak. No pitcher pitched 27 games or 30 games or 35 games or 40 games. And if you think about the difference between 60 home runs by Maris in '61 and 73 by Barry Bonds in 2001, that would be like, what? The best pitcher pitching 40 games. That didn't happen. So it was just that inflated home run stuff, clearly we got the genie at least partially back in the bottle, and nobody's hitting even 50 home runs.

And as you say, the steroid stuff is not the first romance-busting revelation about baseball. I was just reading The Baseball Codes

Right, oh, isn't that great?

—which I absolutely loved.

I loved that.

Which I thought was so good, and there's so much stuff in there about … boy, if you grow up thinking about baseball in a certain way, you can sort of walk away from that book feeling like, "It's just as cool, but it's cool differently than I thought." There's more swagger and there's more cowboy in it than you're aware of as a kid.

"It's cool differently." Well, George Will did that with Men At Work, where it was a relief in the treacly, sentimental, nostalgic evocation of this earlier, natural Field Of Dreams thing, and of course, you go, "Oh, you mean when African-Americans were excluded? Oh, you mean when people drank or took amphetamines, or you mean when Babe Ruth didn't have to bat against Satchel Paige?" … I love that other side of baseball. I've been reveling in it. And the business stuff. There were holdouts – Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio.

[later]

I just threw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium, and that's the third oldest stadium in the majors. Dodger Stadium! It still looks modern! It has a modern, kind of Disneyland, kind of '50s/early '60s vibe to it, which has a kind of Jetsons modernness.

Of course, I grew up going to Veterans Stadium [in Philadelphia], which is one of these very … jail-y stadiums.

Right, Riverfront and Three Rivers…

…and the big remodel is spray painting the seats. "We painted the seats! It's just like Camden Yards!" [Note: I think I'm lying here, and they were actually new plastic seats. But really: same difference.]

Can I tell you something? I decided to try a vegan diet. A friend of mine is on a modified vegan diet, he's 70, he looks terrific, said he's never felt better. So … I'm in Philadelphia. It's my second night. And I'm going, "Oh, God, I'm screwed." So we ask somebody, and they say, "Oh, I think there's some veggie stuff." And I said great, I'd like to see that. And there is a place that's selling a vegan black-bean burger. At Citizens Bank Park. Is this the end of Western civilization? I mean, if you're at the Phillies stadium, and you want to get a vegan burger, they say, "What do you want on your cheesesteak?" "No, I'd like a vegan – " "WHAT DO YOU WANT ON YOUR CHEESESTEAK?" Isn't that the answer?

Yes! Yes.

I was delivered – somebody went and found this thing for me, and I ate one of the most delicious veggie burgers that I've ever had.

That's so wrong.

Isn't that so wrong? I mean … I'm still alive to speak about it.

[later]

It takes a while with [new] teams. I have a really hard time thinking of the Nationals as a real team. I still have a hard time thinking of the Marlins as a real team.

It's the baseball equivalent of a statute of limitations. You have to be around for a while, and you can't just lose. The Mets, if you think, the Mets were lucky. When they started, they won in '69. That was a huge transformation.

There's no question that when the Marlins won, I was like, "Pfft."

And the Diamondbacks. The Marlins won in their fifth year of existence. They won in '97! They interrupted Joe Torre's run.

When I saw the Expos in the film, I was like, "Awww, the Expos!"

And there were people floating around the edges of the Nationals stadium [when I was there] who were Expos ghosts. There were people who would come up and say, "Don't you want to do something entirely on the Expos? I mean, don't you think this is a travesty? Don't you think we deserve a baseball team? What do you think about the Nationals being in Washington? Aren't they pretenders?" And you realize that … this was the amputated limb that was being felt long after it was gone.

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