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Burns scores another hit in 'Tenth Inning'

Two-part baseball documentary looks at the steroid era.

By Mark Washburn
mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

THE TENTH INNING

8 p.m. today

and Wednesday.

WUNG (Channel 58);

WNSC (Channel 30)

Timing is everything in sports, and Ken Burns' timing is getting better.

When his landmark series "Baseball" came to PBS in 1994 (and went on to become one of the most-watched public TV shows in history), the game was in one of its periodic disasters. A players' strike/owners' lockout was in full tilt, one of those episodes that fans vividly recall as a contest of greed between millionaires and billionaires.

It took years for baseball to recover, but it did and went on to new heights - and depths - as Burns reminds us in his four-hour update of the series that opens tonight.

Camden Yards in Baltimore demonstrated that cozy ballparks could not only generate gobs of money, but reinvigorate decaying urban cores. Latin and Asian players moved into prominence. New heroes emerged with names like Griffey, McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, their extraordinary skills transfixing a new generation.

Slowly, it became clear that some of the superpowers of the sport were hatched from steroids, leading to a new dark age for baseball.

"It's been two of the most consequential decades in the history of the sport - the assembly of heroes, villains and fools has never been better," said Burns, in Charlotte to visit Bank of America, the major underwriter for the $4 million sequel.

Burns, 57, is one of millions for whom baseball holds a near-religious lifetime significance. He was born in Brooklyn but is a Red Sox native, a reverential Yankee-hater. His right fist thumping a mitt is as ingrained in his psyche as any childhood memory.

Baseball was his companion then, his escape during his preteen years as cancer slowly consumed his mother's life. It drives him still, even as he argues that Bonds is the greatest player of the last 30 years, "and I'll fight you in a bar over that."

Burns fields an articulate team to reflect on the steroids era, including George Will, Bob Costas and even comedian Chris Rock, who pointedly observes: "Who in this country wouldn't take a pill to make more money at your job?"

Burns gets it, gets it all. Those who love the game know it is a rocky romance. There are triumphs, betrayals, swoons and heartbreak.

But when nine men in crisp uniforms trot to their distant positions on grass shining like neon, with every game holding the promise of seeing something you'd never seen before, as you get past "over the land of the free, and the home of the brave" and the ump cries, "Play Ball!," the heart still skips a beat.

For that instant, we are all young again, captivated by the innocence of what might be, magically catapulted from the temporal world to the divine.

God willing, Burns will be back in 15 years for the top of the 11th.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007; mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com
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