NPR logo Ken Burns: On 'The Tenth Inning,' Bad Deals, And The Fragility Of Happiness


Ken Burns: On 'The Tenth Inning,' Bad Deals, And The Fragility Of Happiness

Jeff Blauser #4 of the Atlanta Braves slides into home plate as Darren Daulton #10 of the Philadelphia Phillies tries to tag him at Fulton County Stadium during the National League Championship Series in October 1993. Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images North America hide caption

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Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images North America

Ken Burns is perfectly happy to talk about making documentaries about baseball — a pursuit he's returned to, 18 years after his very successful Baseball series, to present the sequel The Tenth Inning, which airs tonight and tomorrow night on most PBS outlets. The Tenth Inning covers a few major topics, including steroids, the home run race, the strike, and the general matter of Barry Bonds.

Burns will tell you that he faces the challenge of baseball happening in moments "over the long season," and that there are questions like, as he puts it, "How do you then find the distillation of those moments without violating what is that accumulated experience for us the viewers when it happened?" He's passionate about filmmaking, and he has an abundance of details to offer about how he worked not with clips from the broadcasts assembled by networks, but with the raw camera angles from those broadcasts, along with a combination of home and away radio and other media, to assemble his own versions of each game.

But really, what you want to do is get him talking about baseball itself. Games, players, series ... that's the best part.

That's what happened when we sat down for a long talk during press tour this summer, where he spoke as much in his capacity as a Red Sox fan as in his capacity as a documentarian. We talked specifically about the dangers of getting too purple and allegorical in talking about baseball — and about how easy it is to fall into that pattern — but then I asked him about the 2004 World Series, where the Red Sox finally broke their supposed "curse." What follows are some excerpts from our conversation; there will be more tomorrow, focusing on more baseball nerd topics, including the pressing question of vegan food at baseball stadiums.

Do you think baseball lost something when the Red Sox finally won?

They did. They did indeed. I am a huge Red Sox fan. And parenthetically, I am as proud of the Yankee [victory] scenes, being a Yankee hater, as anything — because we did due diligence and justice to them. And I'm the one who said, "No, no — hit the Frank Sinatra now." [Hums "New York, New York."] And I had to do that. And it felt like this worst kind of penance for having also edited the ball a thousand times going through Buckner's legs. But I turned to my wife when we won, and she was watching in bed, and she said, "Sweetie, come to bed, let's watch together." And I was pacing. Even in the St. Louis series, where we never were behind.

It [the St. Louis series] was very anticlimactic.

But to me, anything could go wrong! Because everything had gone wrong, all my life. Everything had gone wrong. And I'm pacing, and when the Red Sox had the ball, I would be walking this way, and I couldn't look. All the stuff that Doris [Kearns Goodwin] describes [in the film]. She's my doppelganger.

And I turned to [my wife] and I said, "I don't have to worry again." And I then felt … sad. And ... one of the last things I wrote, in the introduction, is that loss is often the greatest teacher. ...Because that's baseball's gift to us.

I was going to ask whether all that has shifted to the Cubs now.

I'm going to do an eleventh inning — I swear to you — if the Cubs win the World Series. And I think Tom Verducci's line is, "They're having a bad century. They've got to rebound." It's one of the greatest lines in all of sports writing. When he says that on camera with that twinkle in his eyes. They're having a bad century.

It has to be the Cubs now. It always has to be somebody.

Yeah. It will always be that. And that's what I love about this game. And then you look, and then it'll be somebody else. And you see the teams that have had the onus, you know, taken off them, like the Angels in 2002, now it's the Giants. Even though they won in '54, they haven't won in the Bay Area. And there are lots of new teams that deserve a World Series.

And it's amazing how once you win, it becomes so much less of a big deal.

Let me just try to qualify that, because I agree with you. 2004 was just like … it meant something, and the scene we've done, I would edit, it would still bring me to tears. When the Yankees win, which they do all the time, they go down Broadway and they get a ticker tape parade, and a million people turn out. That's in a city of eight million. Boston has 500,000 [people] and three million [came to the parade]. You'd have to have forty million people lining Broadway to equal that kind of thing.

And I live in a tiny little town, and you can walk through our town in New Hampshire, and you can hear it coming out of the radio or NESN in every house on a cool summer evening when the windows are open. It means that much. It was huge.

And 2007 wasn't – it was like, "Great, we did it again! How is this possible? We have a dynasty," you know? And then … we were one extra-base hit away from beating the Rays in '08 and didn't, and then we got eliminated by the Angels the next year … they lost that young pitcher, Adenhart, and I think they were just driven. And I remember talking to Mike Barnicle, and he said, "Don't think we can get through the Angels this time. They're so involved in celebrating – and they didn't. And then they fell to the Yankees, and of course, by the time the Yankees won, it was like, "Grrrr, we're back to the old order."

Well, and those things are fragile, because then Johnny Damon goes to the Yankees, and it's like, "Ugh."

It's just like Wade Boggs, just like Roger Clemens … and you just have that sense – and who do we get? We get Mike Torres, who gives up the Bucky Dent home run in '78! You begin to realize the fragility of happiness, right? My mother died when I was eleven. There's not a day – I'm 57. There's not a day that I'm not aware of that. There is a pernicious half-life to suffering, and joy [chuckling] seems to be this really finite quantity. But maybe that's the best part of the human condition. And it may be the best part of baseball, which is that … you've gotta get up and do it again. Yeah, they beat you 18 to one, but maybe tomorrow, you beat 'em two to one.

If you do The Eleventh Inning when the Cubs finally win...

You know how it starts, right? Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce is the prologue, right? Is that one of the greatest moments? And then Strasburg's reel, you start with his sort of thing, but the climax has to be the Cubs winning the World Series.