Ken Burns needs at least one more ‘Inning’ to cover the story he missed on nation’s diehard baseball fans

Ken Burns throws the ceremonial first pitch before the start of the Seattle Mariners game against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field in Seattle on Sept. 17.

REUTERS/Anthony Bolante
Ken Burns throws the ceremonial first pitch before the start of the Seattle Mariners game against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field in Seattle on Sept. 17.

I got an email the other day from a fellow I used to work with. He grew up in Pennsylvania and is one of just two Pittsburgh Pirates fans I have ever met. The email was succinct: “Did you see that former number seven hitter Jose Bautista hit his 50th homer? My gawd.”

Bautista, who will win the AL home run title this season, will officially clinch his title this weekend at Target Field. After four quiet seasons in Pittsburgh, he was traded to the Blue Jays two years ago. He labored in anonymity there as well until this year when he suddenly caught fire and is putting up numbers far ahead of any previous totals, including two homers here Thursday night.

I am sure my Pirate pal is shaking his head and wondering just what the hell happened. Why couldn’t he have done that there?

I found myself wondering what my Pirate pal … and the 160,000 or so who will attend games at Target Field this weekend, thought of Ken Burns’ “The Tenth Inning” series this week.

The four-hour addendum was properly heavy on the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the late 1990s. There was a segment that detailed just why Barry Bonds was admired and then abhorred while he conquered Henry Aaron to become the sport’s all-time home run king. Mr. Burns even broke away from the usual mold for a nifty feature on Seattle’s hitting machine, the indefatigable Ichiro Suzuki.

But, unlike his previous effort, Burns missed the boat by spending way too much time detailing tales of the Red Sox, Yankees and Cubs. Yes, there were interesting stories to tell. But the main reason baseball is surviving today is the diehard fans all over the country. The game has been revived in cities that qualify as the heartland of the country — cities that don’t have anywhere near the population of Boston, Chicago or New York.

Unlike other sports, baseball fans admire success in other ports. They like seeing good players perform great feats. While it is maddening to see a player like David Ortiz go to Boston and become a terror at the plate, baseball fans generally hang with their team through thick and thin. If Mike Barnicle thinks he and his son are the only ones who shed a tear when their team loses a heartbreaker in the playoffs, he is sadly mistaken.

I know a few folks in Detroit who took a long time to recover from last year’s epic playoff game at the Metrodome.

By the next spring, however, all is somewhat forgiven, and we are all off to a new adventure. Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field are not the only places where hope springs eternal.

Although overall MLB attendance is down slightly, the list of cities that had increases is fascinating. Thanks to a good club and a nifty new stadium, the Twins are far and away the leaders. (They will finish nearly a million ahead of last year’s numbers.)

The National League team that made the biggest leap — the Cincinnati Reds — is one of the best stories in baseball. If Mr. Burns came to the Midwest, he would have discovered many longtime Twins’ fans in tiny towns in Iowa, North and South Dakota and just as many Cincy fans in Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana. The local MLB team has long held the fascination of those states. In seasons like this — when the team plays very well — their interest levels intensifies greatly.

The other thing Mr. Burns missed on was this simple point: Baseball fans love to watch good players and good baseball … no matter who the team is. Next week, the country’s eyes won’t just be on Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Fans want to see Joe Mauer catch and hit. Tampa Bay’s David Price is terrific to watch on the mound. Texas’ Josh Hamilton is the ultimate tale of redemption. If his team plays well in the postseason, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto has a chance to become an instant sensation.

These guys — as well as the next Gene Larkin (an unexpected hero) — are the fellows who spur our interest in the game.

The beauty of baseball, however, is the game isn’t run on a clock. When extra innings are necessary, it can go on for some time. So, perhaps Mr. Burns can come back in a couple of years with an 11th inning episode that takes on these matters.

While he is at it, he could explain perhaps this season’s most amazing statistic: The Pirates, who have the most losses in the majors, actually registered an increase in attendance this season.

I know a fellow he can call. While most people around here worry about whom the Twins will play in the playoffs next week and if the starting pitching can come together, my Pirate pal is likely thinking about next year.

As frustrating and agonizing as the game is, hope really does spring eternal.

Dave Wright, a Detroit native, is a freelance writer/editor in St. Paul. His first book, “162-0: Imagine a Twins’ Undefeated Season” is available in bookstores and online.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dave Kemp on 10/02/2010 - 12:14 am.

    David,
    Didn’t Independent baseball start in 1993?
    No Kirby Puckett?
    Wasn’t there an attempt at getting rid of the Twins a while back?
    Nothing on the Twins way of playing baseball and their success during the 00’s.
    Weren’t there a lot of juiced players on the Yanks and Red Sox during the 2003 and 2004 seasons? Wouldn’t you consider them to be “cheaters” too? How would the Twins have faired without those players in the Yankees’ lineups? I see a nice historical comparison there.

    D. Kemp

  2. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 10/02/2010 - 07:13 am.

    I watched the two shows. If Burns had a baseball series before this I am unaware of it. Even one minute on the origins of baseball would have helped. Another two minutes total could have given at least cursory reference to the past high profile events like the Black Sock Scandal, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, ect. Not more than thirty seconds for each subject but a memory refresher.

    We are up to three or four minutes total. Added to that is the Yankees return from their “fall from grace”. Perhaps it’s just me but I grew up thinking that the Yankees were a “dynasty” that “owned” the American League and that is why we got league division and “wild cards” so other teams would have chance at the playoffs.

    With an expansive subject like sports “dilution is pollution” in the sense that you can’t follow it all. You focus/adopt certain teams, especially the home teams. It looks like Ken Burns did this with his favorite teams which are “coastal” and generally long history teams. There was the Chicago Cubs baseball demolition but we all know that.

    I didn’t expect a lot on the Minnesota Twins but found nothing. The Washington Senators and the Griffith family went was back in baseball. Fidel Castro actually tried out for the Senators! In the early 1960’s there was serious talk of moving the US capital to the Twin Cities because of Russian nuclear missile submarines! The baby boomer Icon show “MASH” prominently featured the MN Twins farm team the Toledo Mud Hens as does “Wheel of Fortune”, host Pat Sajak avidly follows the Mud Hens. Target Field is a big success and the lease locks the Twins here through 2039. The minor league team recruitment from Central America was interesting but the MN Twins have long been a leader in that (think Fidel Castro). Redbox.com had a DVD “Sugar” on a movie on this about a Caribbean player (not Castro) who went through the Twins (sub) farm system.

    Again I grew up in the Twin Cities but the stuff like “when Boston finally won I put a copy of the final game scorecard on my father’s grave” seemed sincere but “so 20th Century”. George Will was sincere and articulate but I was about to scream “get a life!” (and I am a political conservative).

    That said, I had no trouble sitting through the two days of the show.

  3. Submitted by Tony Rozycki on 10/02/2010 - 09:49 am.

    I love baseball too & haven’t seen Burns new documentary yet. But am struggling with the steroid game chapter that isn’t really closed as far as I can tell. Recently finished an interesting book about illegal doping in baseball & other sports.

    Find it much harder now to get as excited or impressed when a player’s home run stats suddenly go off the charts than when I was 12 & in Little League. It was easier for the poor umpires to catch spitball pitchers, pine tar, corked bats & dropped nail files back in the day of Mickey, Willie & my fave the Duke. (Tho the Splendid Splinter was the better hitter then… I like to think it was due to his natural 20-15 eyesight.)

    It can be very hard to know whose been using the latest unidentified and/or unlisted steroid! Or when or if they’ll be caught. The players can claim they had no clue what ingredients their “guru” trainer/nutritionist includes & provides in their creatively magical potion! Viagra? Who knows? Not Bonds. But they should. Maybe the silver lining is an expanding job market for chemists & lawyers? Bonds & Clemens will be back in court in 2011.

    Maybe it’s just a personal problem on the journey from naivete to maturity?

    But who is the home run champ? Ruth? Maris? Aaron? Bonds? Keep testing the players & improving the tests!

    One more thing, lets reduce the income gap between umpires, players & owners…it’s a national disgrace.

  4. Submitted by Jason Walker on 10/02/2010 - 07:53 pm.

    Great topic. This latest Burns saga had me thinking the same thing: Sorry Burnsie, but life exists outside of Boston. Mike Barnicle may love the Red Sox and live and die with them, but big whoop, lots of people live and die with the Kansas City Royals, but I didn’t see any glimpse of the Boys in Blue, except when they showed Joe Randa striking out against Pedro Martinez. And by the way, what kind of a sportswriter wears his heart on his sleeve like that? Get a grip, pal.
    It’s pathetic when ESPN goes wild for Red Sox-Yankees in April, but that’s ESPN, and they have proven to have no soul. But Ken Burns should have done better. I expected more and was incredibly disappointed.

  5. Submitted by Pat Borzi on 10/03/2010 - 01:37 pm.

    Gregory: Ken Burns had an earlier series, “Baseball,” that dealt with a lot of the historical elements you mentioned.

    To all: Keep in mind that Burns lives in New Hampshire, part of the so-called Red Sox Nation and the state that produced Carlton Fisk. It’s no coincidence that the Sox, after going 80-something years without a world championship, figure prominently in the latest installment.

  6. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 10/04/2010 - 03:41 pm.

    While watching the two days I googled a bit and figured there must have been earlier installments to this. My recap scenario would be three or four minutes total max.

    Generally, if you want a sequel with a wider audience you try to accommodate the potential views of various levels. In baseball the “diehard” market is relatively small. You depend on the more casual fans to “pay the bills”. (in some of the late season Twins “away” games this year the stands looked deserted.)

    Perhaps Boston and NYC are the big PBS “powerhouses” so they get ratings and sales there but the PBS charter does not say “Ken Burns must be funded!”.

    The hard core baseball fan probably knows more about the “steroid” scandal and other high points. Other than that it was the NE rivalry.

    Locally AM-1500 has the Twins games. If I drive somewhere during the day they have that ESPN “Sports talk”. I’ll often give it a minute or until the commercial break before hitting the radio button just to “sample” it.

    The “NE focus” seems to be the biggest compliant both on local and national show on AM-1500.

    By following some simple filmaking rules Burns could have made this far more “user friendly”.

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