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Television Review

Burns takes to the diamond again

‘10th Inning’ brings game into modern times

Pedro Martinez on the mound for the Red Sox. Pedro Martinez on the mound for the Red Sox. (V.J. Lovero/Sports Illustrated)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 28, 2010

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Ken Burns has the filmmaking equivalent of a rubber arm. He alternates between throwing complete-game doubleheaders (“The Civil War,’’ “Jazz,’’ “The War,’’ “The National Parks’’) and facing a few batters in relief (“Unforgivable Blackness,’’ “Mark Twain,’’ “Huey Long’’). Now he’s done both. “Baseball: The Tenth Inning,’’ which Burns codirected with Lynn Novick, is a four-hour follow-up to 1994’s 18 1/2-hour “Baseball.’’

All right, four hours is more than just a few batters — but Burns and Novick have a lot of ground to cover. “This is the golden age of baseball,’’ commissioner Bud Selig declares. Uh-huh. Imagine the things Jefferson Davis, or Ambrose E. Burnside (more Selig’s speed) would have said if Burns could have gotten them on camera for “The Civil War.’’ ESPN’s Howard Bryant more credibly asks, “Is it possible to have a renaissance and a calamity at the same time?’’ Simply posing the question suggests an answer.

“The Tenth Inning’’ gives us the 1994 strike, the Atlanta Braves’ domination of the National League East, Cal Ripken Jr.’s record for most consecutive games played, the New York Yankees’ World Series run, the home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, growing unease over performance-enhancing drugs, a bevy of new ballparks, the magic that was Pedro Martinez on the mound, the magic that is Ichiro Suzuki at the plate and in the field (talk about covering a lot of ground), the Mitchell Report, the Dominican Republic as field of dreams, and — speaking of dreams — a certain American League Championship Series that took place in 2004.

Even the most casual sports fan will note the omission of a certain name: Barry Bonds. He gets his own paragraph. Jackie Robinson and race were the heart of “Baseball.’’ Bonds and steroids are the spine of “The Tenth Inning.’’ Robinson was a hero in every sense of the word. No one would ever call Bonds a hero, except between the foul lines. His tragedy is that the one thing indisputably great about him, his achievements on the field, he tainted in an effort to make them that much greater. That he wasn’t exactly alone in doing so makes him representative as well as singular.

“The Tenth Inning’’ begins with a montage of legendary heroes (Ruth, Gehrig, and on up to Nolan Ryan) and moments (Willie Mays’s World Series catch, Joe Carter’s walk-off home run to win the 1993 series). Some footage of kids in the Dominican playing ball in the streets follows. Bows having been made to baseball past and baseball future, Burns and Novick get down to business with the seventh game of the 1992 NLCS. It was a great game, for starters, and the Braves coming up with three runs in the bottom of the ninth started their stellar run. And it introduces us to Bonds. He was in left field for the losing team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. He’ll be seen a lot more.

The basic Burns approach remains the same: historical footage intercut with talking heads. There’s no comparable figure to Buck O’Neil in “Baseball.’’ “The Tenth Inning’’ is dedicated to his memory. The absence of a tutelary deity, like O’Neil, or Shelby Foote in “The Civil War,’’ means the rotation lacks a stopper. Also, although Keith David does a perfectly acceptable job as narrator, one misses the amused tones of the late John Chancellor.

Some of the interviewees are famous: Joe Torre, Martinez (who calls Red Sox fans “the most loyal’’ he’s seen). Most are writers or sportscasters, some of them veterans of “Baseball’’: George F. Will, Daniel Okrent, Bob Costas, Doris Kearns Goodwin. (She doesn’t show up until the final hour, thus lulling hopeful viewers into a false sense of security.) Others are new to the lineup: Keith Olbermann, Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton.

Breton assumes a dual role, representing San Francisco Giants fans and Hispanics in baseball. Mike Barnicle, who toiled for many years at this newspaper, serves as representative of Red Sox Nation. One of his great strengths on both page and screen has always been what a potent and vivid presence he has. A little bit of Mike can go a long way. In the “Tenth Inning’’ perhaps it goes too long. Photogenic as his mother and youngest son are, do we need to see their pictures?

Well, maybe we do. Burns and Novick know that what happens on the field makes baseball interesting — and what happens in the hearts and minds of its followers is what makes it great. That mingling of action and ardor (technical expertise, too) is what makes “The Tenth Inning’’ such fine viewing. Listening, too: As always, Burns uses music extremely well. Wynton Marsalis contributes a lightly swinging “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’’ We hear Jose Feliciano’s famous/notorious rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’ And the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Let There Be Drums’’ is to “Ashokan Farewell,’’ the signature tune of “The Civil War,’’ as an artillery barrage is to a sacrifice bunt.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

BASEBALL: The Tenth Inning

On: Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 8-10; tomorrow, 8-10:30 p.m.