Taking hard look at steroid era

Filmmaker Burns delves into '90s in latest project

August 22, 2010|By Phil Rogers

Few Americans look at baseball with a sharper eye than Ken Burns, the celebrated filmmaker and lifelong Red Sox fan. He has spent at least five of the last 20 years studying the sport with the same perspective he brought to the groundbreaking Civil War project that launched his career.

Burns sees the good and bad in everything and has found a way to maintain his joy about the things he truly loves, most notably his family, his work and his guiltiest passion, baseball.

When Roger Clemens was indicted Thursday, Burns was at the Comcast SportsNet studio in Chicago, preparing for an appearance on "Chicago Tribune Live." He was at Wrigley Field on Friday, throwing out the first pitch for a Braves-Cubs game as he promoted his soon-to-be-released project "The Tenth Inning," which updates his 181/2-hour look at the history of baseball in 1994.

The latest project examines the sport since the strike that wiped out the '94 World Series, with a hard look at the steroid era.

Burns had a quick answer after hearing that Clemens, once a Boston icon, had been indicted on charges he lied to Congress during 2008 testimony that followed his being named as a steroid user in the Mitchell Report.

"This is serious," Burns said. "The government, I think, screwed up the case on Barry (Bonds). That case is going to be thrown out. But that means you've got to figure these guys have been working doubly hard. If these guys feel they have the case to indict Roger, there's a chance that you might find a guy who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame in jail. That's a pretty stunning thing."

Yet while Clemens is in trouble, Burns believes baseball has weathered the latest storm.

"It's never (been) better," he said, pointing to remarkable players and the delight of new stadiums. "Michael Novak, the theologian, said about the time the Dodgers and Giants left New York that to lose a baseball team has more of an impact on a community than losing a cathedral. I was just in Minneapolis. People are walking on air. They've got this pristine, new cathedral built called Target Field.."

For Burns, "The Tenth Inning'' is different from most of his projects because the history it examines is so fresh. He offers a mostly non-judgmental look at the 1998 Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run race and the spread of steroid use before Commissioner Bud Selig got the players' union to agree to a testing program in 2002.

"We spent three years trying to come to terms with it," Burns said. "The thing that finally dawned on me when we finished the film is that when you're in the midst of something, it's really bad — that traffic jam you're in and you're never going to get out of, and your blood pressure rises. We're out of it, more or less. It's in our rearview mirror."

Burns finds no conspiracy by Selig and the owners.

"I've spent enough time with Bud," Burns said. "It's not the story. It's not the party line. It was a head fake for a lot of those guys. They really thought, as Fay (Vincent) did and Bud did, that (the issue) was marijuana and cocaine. That was what they had to be on guard against.

"As this other thing crept up, it was sort of whispers, (then) it was too late to stop the thing. You had to bring down the biggest players in the game, and it took outside pressure."

Burns offers an understandable point of view from the players' side, pointing to America's increased reliance on all pharmaceuticals.

"We give our kids pills to be better in the classroom, and we take them to be better in the bedroom," he said. "Are we so shocked that our players are taking this stuff?''

Burns interviewed Selig, union leader Donald Fehr and lots of others within the sport. He offered invitations to many others who declined, specifically Bonds, McGwire and Clemens.

He isn't especially sympathetic toward Clemens but believes Clemens and Bonds will find their way into the Hall of Fame because they had established greatness before being linked to steroid use. He's not so sure about Sosa and McGwire.

"What we've recognized is that this steroids era inflated one thing, home runs, and if you're a one-note Charlie, you're sort of in trouble," Burns said. "This is a terrible ball-and-chain for (McGwire and Sosa) to drag around."

Fry an egg: CC Sabathia has become the front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award, but Felix Hernandez is one of eight pitchers with a shot. He entered the weekend with a 2.62 ERA in a league-high 189 innings, but the Mariners had saddled him with an 8-10 record.

A two-out error by Chone Figgins paved the way for the Indians to score seven unearned runs in one inning last Sunday.

"Errors are a part of the game," Hernandez told reporters after a rant in Spanish to a couple of teammates. "I was like, 'Just make good pitches.'"

Good call: Twins manager Ron Gardenhire made the right move when he pulled Kevin Slowey after seven no-hit innings against the A's last Sunday. Slowey had been skipped the previous time around the rotation because of elbow pain.

Gardenhire didn't mind that the Target Field fans were booing.

"I'd be booing too," he said. "I want to see a no-hitter myself, but I also know that I'm responsible for this young man's arm, and we were going to protect him no matter what."

The last word: "It messes with you mentally. You try to do different things that are out of what you do well. I fell into that trap a little bit, but you try to just have good at-bats and stick with your game." — Joe Mauer on not hitting a home run at Target Field until the Twins' 58th game there.

progers@tribune.com

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