Ken Burns may love baseball, and he's done more than any public figure to define its story for future generations, but he has bad news for you about it: It's always been corrupt.
It goes way back before the controversies over Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens. It even goes past the infamous Chicago Black Sox of 1918. It is, Burns points out, intrinsic to the game. After all, in baseball, stealing a base is considered fair play. He sat down with me ahead of the premiere of PBS's The Tenth Inning on Tuesday, September 28.
Barry Bonds, the talented scion turned enhanced record-breaker, emerges as a central figure as Burns works to frame the recent history of baseball in terms of larger currents in American culture and history. Many of those themes arise from the presence of big money.
To some, Bonds is the story of a flammable ego burning out of control. To Burns, the tale of Barry Bonds is more complicated than that, inextricable from his family history, from the push to maintain mega salaries, from the story of race relations and career ambitions, and from personality issues. To Burns, Bonds "is arguably the greatest person who has ever played the game of baseball. Period. Full stop. And he will forever carry around the scarlet letter A, the asterisk over his head."
Yet, says Burns, " Nobody deserves an asterisk."
Despite the fact that he's emblematic of the past two decades of baseball, Bonds declined to be filmed by Burns. "Quite smartly, his lawyers told him not to," Burns told me.
To Burns, rampant steroid use is also a function of big money. When you're a backfielder at risk of being trimmed from the team, and losing your position would mean losing that seven-figure salary for the next five years, then you're probably going to take drugs. It's a matter of money.
I also talked to Burns about how big salaries have affected hiring practices. Watch that by clicking here.
To catch PBS' The Tenth Inning, check your local listings. If you saw Ken Burns' previous series, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, you can watch Jason's chat with him about that by clicking here.
Barry Bonds refused to participate in Ken Burns' 'The Tenth Inning'