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Ken Burns’ new sequel contains valuable historical lessons for sports journalists

You will sit through about an hour of superstar documentarian Ken Burns’ return to baseball, The Tenth Inning, before you see him really delve into the subject that inspired his first-ever sequel.

Steroids.

“When steroids fully became an issue and you realized how consequential the last two decades have been – dealing with the (players’) strike, the attendant money issues and the gigantic shadow of the steroid scandal…we felt compelled to come back and do it,” said Burns, of his decision to craft a new chapter for his 1994 film Baseball, a blockbuster success drawing 45-million pairs of eyeballs to PBS.

“2004 made me think about it,” he added, referring to the year his `beloved Boston Red Sox won the World Series. “Steroids made us decide to do it.”

But Burns being Burns, the Tenth Inning takes its time getting to the heart of that subject, starting with the early career of one of the sports most notorious alleged users of the stuff, former San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Barry Bonds.

Comic Chris Rock makes a surprising appearance, summing up the steroids issue with his usual flair for blunt humor.

“Who in the whole country wouldn’t take a pill to make more money at their job?” he says in Burns’ film, looking at the unseen producers off camera. “Here’s a pill and you get paid like Steven Spielberg? You would take the pill.”

But more than the money, The Tenth Inning revisits how the entire sports establishment was co-opted by the recharged passion from the public that steroid-enhanced home run hitters brought to the sport.

Including journalists who were supposed to be watchdogs.

The film shows a 1998 report from Associated Press writer Steve Wilstein that St. Louis Cardinals home run king Mark McGwire had a bottle full of anabolic steroids sitting in his locker bringing condemnation on Wilstein for telling sports fans – and sports media – a story they didn’t want to hear.

The NFL and the Olympics had banned such stuff already. But baseball was giddy with the love pouring from fans as McGwire and Chicago Cubs hitter Sammy Sosa fought to beat Roger Maris’ longtime single-season home run record of 61 hits.

And when McGwire shattered that record, hugging Maris’ family and providing a picture-perfect moment, many journalists shrugged off the curious coincidence that found him conquering that mountain in 70 less at-bats than Maris needed to establish it.

“When you’re covering baseball, even when you’re supposed to have some distance from it, you’re still a fan,” said Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton, who serves as an important voice in the film explaining everything from the sport’s influx of Latin American players to covering the steroid scandal.

“I admit – and a lot of my colleagues admit – that we were asleep at the switch; it took people from outside to expose what was really going on in baseball,” he added. “What we can say now is that almost everyone was using steroids at that time…and we didn’t want to hear it.”

Burns covers 15 years in four hours, starting with the player walkout that led to cancellation of the 1994 baseball season and ending in 2009, before McGwire would finally admit in a tearful interview last January, that he had lied to Congress and his fans when denying use of steroids.

Over the two-part film, Burns amasses an array of eclectic voices to speak on baseball’s recent, tumultuous history. Everyone from Rock and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann to NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas, columnist and author George Will, and a host of sports journalists join the party.

The film is dedicated to Buck O’Neil, the one-time Negro leagues player who emerged as a star of the original Baseball film and died in 2006. Burns has said Breton, columnist Mike Barnicle, star pitcher Pedro Martinez and ex-New York Yankees manager Joe Torre fulfill O’Neil’s role in the new film.

And it’s a sprawling canvas. Burns and partner Lynn Novick explore the camp set up to train Latin American players in the sport; the influx of Asian players which mimicked the influx of Asian immigrants to America; the historic world Series wins by the New York Yankees and Red Sox and the impact of the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks in robbing fans of their interest in the sport.

“It is, in some ways, the most complicated narrative that we’ve had to construct,” said Burns. “How do you recapture some of that joy and, at the same time, be mindful that you’re setting the traps for a tragedy of which, as Marcos is suggesting, we are all unindicted co-conspirators?”

And, as you might expect from filmmakers who are also historians, Burns’ work focuses more on explaining how and why steroid use happened rather than demonizing players for making a choice the sport virtually demanded they take.

“We tried to make it a more human and complicated story and not so much a sort of blame game, which is very much how our media culture can sometimes work,” said Novick. “We really wanted to…make us all think a little it about the society where we’re all being bombarded with potential drugs that can help us do our jobs better.”

When means, once again, Burns has offered a film that tells us as much about ourselves as anything – documenting an industry forced to shed its pretensions and myths in a painfully public process.

And for sports journalists now negotiating a minefield of gossip and the 24/7 online reporting culture, there are lessons, too – mostly about the consequence of letting a fan’s passion distract from the need to fully and fearlessly practice our craft, no matter whose illusions get shattered.

The Tenth Inning airs tonight and Wednesday on PBS stations across the country. Check local listings for time and channel.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.  
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