Ken Burns has always had good timing. One month before the filmmaker’s 18Â½-hour love letter to America’s national pastime was to begin being broadcast in 1994, Major League Baseball conveniently went on strike, so its fans had a choice: Either tune in to PBS to savor classic moments of the sport artfully arranged, or nothing.
Thursday, as Burns was beguiling a luncheon at the Union League Club, news broke that Roger Clemens had been indicted for lying to Congress about his steroid use.
Burns told the packed room that while an identical transgression in football would be shrugged off by the non-fan public, “if a baseball player does it, it somehow challenges our faith in something pure.”
Burns is here because next month WTTW-Channel 11 is broadcasting “The Tenth Inning,” his new two-part, four-hour update of what baseball has been up to since the early 1990s.
If you’ve ever heard Burns speak, the secret to his documentary success is plain: Burns can captivate just by talking; his adding images and music to the stories he tells is just gilding the lily.
By the time he was done rhapsodizing baseball — how it mirrors the cycles of life, blooming in the spring, dying in the fall, how it teaches the value of failure and daily struggle — I, a guy who normally considers sports to be the same thing happening over and over again, wished only that I could go back in time and spend the past few decades of my life camped out in the stands, munching peanuts and penciling in the box score.
I can’t reprise Burns’ whole speech, but he said something about steroids that bears repeating.
Making clear he wasn’t justifying anything, he asked how, living “in a pharmacologically inclined culture,” could we really be surprised at any of this?
“We give our kids drugs to do better in school,” he said. “We take drugs to do better in the bedroom.”
Which also explains the public’s outsize horror at athletes doing what many people do themselve
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