Talkin' Baseball

September 25, 1994

Instead of chewing the fat around the water cooler over who's going to win the pennant, we ruminate over whether Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary is deathly boring.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

One can argue that Mr. Burns' series isn't as riveting as his project on the Civil War (it isn't), or at 18 1/2 hours is bloated (it is), or that the filmmaker's patina of genius might have been burnished more had he not repeated all the tricks he used last time.

Yet somebody out there's watching. Even though last Thursday's storm knocked out the Annapolis transmitter that serves a third of Maryland Public Television's market, MPT still drew as large an audience as on any normal night for public TV viewing. Nationally and locally, the show is scoring well in the ratings.

The series itself shares some aspects of the game. Just as fans forever ponder whether the manager's decision cost their team victory, public television executives will never know whether Mr. Burns' work would have been an even bigger hit had it aired while the baseball season was churning to a climax. That was the plan originally, but the strike short-circuited that. (Imagine the mincemeat a Burns descendant will make of the present ownership group in the retelling 50 years from now.) On the other hand, some devotees may be watching more without pennant race distractions.

The shows also resemble baseball in that one must endure a lot of tedium for the few moments that can make it all worthwhile. We've been riveted by the viciousness of Ty Cobb; the injustice imposed on the Negro Leagues; the spectacle of Babe Ruth, reminding us that Michael Jordan is not the first such cultural phenomenon this century.

But whatever parallels tie art and real life, after a few hours of couch-potatoing last week we know this difference unequivocally: You cannot fully enjoy beer and munchies during a documentary.

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