I was given an opportunity to talk to documentarian Ken Burns, now heading from city to city across the country to tout his new film “The Tenth Inning,” a companion to his 1994 mega-documentary “Baseball,” which ran nine nights (or “innings”) on PBS.
Burns was in Washington June 8 to throw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals-Pittsburgh Pirates game. As luck would have it, it was the same game where heralded uberprospect Stephen Strasburg was to make his major-league debut on the mound for the Nationals. “Just dumb luck,” Burns remarked. Strasburg gave up only two runs in seven innings and struck out 14 — including the last seven in a row — with no walks in a 5-2 Nats win.
The filmmaker admitted it can get dicey when trying to interpret history when the era under discussion may not yet be over. That’s why, Burns said, he cut off “The Tenth Inning” with the Boston Red Sox’s improbable comeback from a three-games-to-none hole in the 2004 American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, followed by Boston’s sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals to capture the World Series for the first time in 86 years, with a hint of the steroid scandal that was to dog the sport.
“I don’t think this would have been updated if not my team, the Red Sox, had won the 2004 World Series,” Burns explained. But in in trying to be evenhanded about it all, Burns said he made sure to give plenty of time to the Yankees, the favorite team of his documentary partner, Lynn Novick, with particular emphasis on the 2001 World Series, which the Yanks lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the bottom of the ninth inning of decisive Game Seven.
“For the first time ever, we were rooting for the New York Yankees because of 9/11, and it didn’t happen that way,” Burns said.
Burns gave his take on a recent baseball phenomenon — the imperfect perfect game tossed June 2 by the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga. For anyone who doesn’t know, Galarraga got the first 26 Cleveland Indians batters out — and would have had the 27th to finish off the perfect game had it not been for a blown call by first-base umpire Jim Joyce. The ump took a lot of abuse from Galarraga’s Tigers teammates on the field, but once in the solitude of the umpire’s locker room, he recognized he had missed the call and apologized that night to Galarraga. (By the way, Joyce went to Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio.)
Calls have been made to have the perfect game declared retroactively, but Burns said he would have done exactly what baseball commission Bud Selig did: nothing.
“Let’s set the record straight: He was robbed,” Burns said of Galarraga. “But baseball resembles life. Just think if Bud Selig had reversed it one day. Then the commissioner would have set the precedent of changing things” — from the result of the 1919 World Series tainted by the game throwing “Black Sox,” to the sign-stealing aided-and-abetted “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” hit by Bobby Thomson off Ralph Branca (who was consoled afterward by his pastor) in the famous 1951 NL playoff game between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, to the likelihood that the Yankees’ Bucky Dent used a teammate’s corked bat to hit a home run that launched the Yanks — and not the Red Sox — into the 1978 AL playoffs.
“This is a sweater you don’t want to pull the thread on and watch it unravel,” Burns said.
But the grace amid failure that characterized Joyce and Galarraga the evening of the game and the next day — when Galarraga brought Detroit’s lineup card to Joyce, working home plate that game — was, according to Burns, “one of the greatest moments of sports that I have ever seen.”