Their epic nine-part series Baseball aired in 1994 -- arriving as bittersweetly as a love letter mailed before the breakup; it aired when the major league players were on strike. What has happened to the sport in only 15 years since it resumed -- an eyeblink for historians; Justin Bieber has been around longer -- amounts to what Burns has called one of the "most consequential" slices of the game's history.
As an identifier, "The Steroid Era" works not unlike the eponymous juice that changed the game: quick and dirty. There is so much more. It also has been the era in which baseball grew big and complicated and global and messy. Wild cards, unprecedented labor peace, home runs, a ballpark building boom, expansion, more home runs, interleague play, new media platforms and yes, even more home runs, have left the Baseball masterpiece looking quaint and already oxidized.
So tonight and tomorrow night on PBS we are treated to The Tenth Inning, four hours from Burns and Novick on what happened to baseball since Baseball. They are the best visual storytellers of our times, even in this turn at-bat, when they don't have the narrative benefits of a clear historical context or a lack of video. Producing a living history on the well-known and often-seen is the filmmaking equivalent of facing Pedro Martinez in his prime and yet, of course, they connect solidly. (Disclosure department: I appear in and consulted on The Tenth Inning.)
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What shines through about The Tenth Inning is the affirmation of a scientific fact: baseball floats. It always bobs back to the surface, strikes and steroids no better at sinking it than cocaine, gambling and assorted other plagues. Burns and Novick are the best kinds of fans -- inveterate fans of the game -- and so happily for us they are stronger than cynicism. So we get the moral morass of the 1998 home run race, acknowledging in hindsight its inauthenticity, but remembering, too, that the joy back then was real.
The undercurrent of sadness of the The Tenth Inning, though, is that it already is clear how cut off that era is from the rest of baseball history. We like to believe that one of the advantages of baseball is how interconnected it is; everything that happens today is placed in the context of something in its past, essentially using numbers to define time and place. What the Sumerians did for writing, baseball has done for the romance language of statistics. And yet The Steroid Era is a language unto itself, a bastardization of baseball's oral and written history.
Here is a quick visual of baseball history: the number of times a player has hit 50 home runs, including those seasons of 63 or more. It is broken down by three segments: all of major league history up until The Steroid Era, the height of the Steroid Era itself, and The Testing Era:
What took 119 years was done again (and then some) in just eight, but once steroid testing went into place in 2003, the next eight years have looked nothing like it -- and neither have the players. It is jarring, based on what we now know and what we see today, to view in The Tenth Inning the grotesque musculature of sluggers such as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. It's like leisure suits of the 1970s; it was the fashion of the times, but my goodness, what were we thinking?
When Burns and Novick produced Baseball, they regarded it as a sequel to The Civil War, in that both subjects defined America. Baseball defined America as a nation of immigrants, of tremendous growth and, mostly, of democracy. The major league debut of Jackie Robinson, for instance, preceded Brown v. Board of Education by seven years and the stand by Rosa Parks by eight years.
The Tenth Inning reminds us that baseball continues to define America, though not in ways so profoundly mythologized. We are, as anyone who pays attention to commercials between innings can attest, a pharmacological nation. If at every turn we sell and buy the notion of better living through drugs, be it for pleasure or performance, how could baseball (or any sport) have been insulated from such a culture?
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Moreover, as the digital age gave rise to an information- and service-based economy rather than a manufacturing one, the availability and appetite for entertainment have exploded. Americans crave entertainment more than ever. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American consumer spends about as much money on entertainment as on health care. Baseball, once a pastime in which newspapers and radio were the primary delivery vehicles, now must compete as one of many entertainment options across multiple platforms.
So The Tenth Inning finds a much bigger, commercial game than Baseball left us. It is an "industry" now. In 1991, the Chicago White Sox wrote the blueprint for upward financial mobility in baseball when they moved into a publicly financed ballpark, only after threatening to move out of town and then demolishing the oldest stadium in use at the time, historic Comiskey Park. It was worth it for 103 luxury suites and 1,822 club seats. So began a spasm of spending (mostly all of it public money) to build 21 ballparks in 20 years, replete with the American necessities of wider, cushioned seats with waiter service.
Attendance rose, but not stunningly so. In fact, it took 18 seasons for baseball to get back to its per-game average before the strike hit (31,256) -- only to sink below that 1994 attendance average last year (30,350). The money in the game did explode, however, because of greater per-capita spending at these new palaces but mostly because of new revenues such as regional sports networks, international growth, naming rights, advanced media and expanded playoffs. The wild card may be the best-known hit in the catalog of commissioner Bud Selig, but his two most important achievements are creating 17 uninterrupted seasons of labor peace and long ago convincing the owners to share online revenues equally.
The post-strike environment has created, according to Selig, "the best competitive balance in the game's history." Since the strike, 16 franchises have played in 15 World Series. This year, six of the eight highest-spending teams will not make the postseason (Red Sox, Cubs, Mets, Tigers, White Sox and Angels).
The greatest economic engine, however, in the post-strike boom has been the rise of the New York Yankees and, subsequently, the Boston Red Sox and the rivalry they engendered. The Yankees and Red Sox generate ratings, merchandise sales and buzz like nobody else, which explains why Burns and Novick devote healthy chunks of The Tenth Inning to those franchises and specifically to their breakthrough years: 1996 for the Yankees and 2004 for the Red Sox.
Yankees-Red Sox is the single greatest weight-bearing beam in the structure of baseball. Baseball next month will conduct its first postseason without the Chicago or Los Angeles markets represented since 2001, but the idea of being without the Yankees and Red Sox has become unthinkable. They rank first and third in the majors in wins since 1995, have claimed 13 spots in the past 14 American League Championship Series and draw a combined 6.7 million fans to their parks, up 40 percent in the last full season before the strike.
As for the game itself, this season, often referred to as The Year of the Pitcher, has continued to return baseball to a pre-steroid look -- further cutting off that era from the rest of baseball's connected history. Offense has been pruned to 1992 levels. We get 1-0 games twice a week. Defense matters again. Even the Oakland Athletics bunt.
Baseball has reestablished its equilibrium, its connection to its history. The cost for such rebalancing, at a time when infamy and fame are interchangeable, when notoriety is misused so often as to have entirely lost its true meaning, is that baseball does not have a single player people talk about at the water cooler on Monday morning. McGwire, Bonds, Martinez, Clemens, Griffey, Sosa, Schilling, Johnson . . . all commanded the attention of casual fans for reasons good and bad, maybe even prompted them to buy tickets when they came to their town. All are gone. Now . . . Jeter, Mauer, Pujols, Halladay . . . they are understated stars in a world that responds to the volume of self promotion.
Without a transcendent player and without Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, this will not be a huge October for baseball ratings, not unless several series get stretched to the maximum number of games (a stroke of luck for which the game is overdue). But ratings alone are not the measurement of health for a sport no more than weight is for a person. Ratings, because of the plethora of media options, can't compare to what they were in a three-network world.
If you go by World Series ratings, baseball reached its apex in 1980, when the Phillies and Royals did a 32.8 rating. Last year the Yankees and Phillies rated an 11.7. And yet per-game attendance today is 50 percent higher than what it was in 1980 (20,434). The game was played in many multi-purpose stadiums and strikes or lockouts always loomed as close as the next round of bargaining between the owners and players. Today the leading economic indicators for the sport are strong. There is so much live baseball on television and online you can consume it just about anywhere anytime (except for baseball's Byzantine blackout rules). Minor league phenoms now do their apprenticeships on live national television, as was the case with Stephen Strasburg on the MLB Network.
Should baseball call back Burns and Novick for The Eleventh Inning 16 years or so from now, baseball no doubt will look differently. There may be expanded use of replay, an expanded postseason format, a flex schedule based on revenues, limits on a catcher's trip to the mound, even better consumer-controlled media to consume content, and some means, perhaps by hitting techniques, to slow the runaway rate of plate appearances in which the ball does not get put in play (strikeouts and walks).
Thematically, however, the story they would tell then will not differ too much from Baseball or The Tenth Inning. The game always will reflect America. There always will be 90 feet between the bases. There always will be some crisis to make the more temporal thinkers wonder if the game can thrive as it used to, maybe even if it can survive. And it always bobs back to the surface.