Catching up with Ken Burns’ ‘Baseball’ nearly three decades later

What could have been

After we got home from Cooperstown in early August, we decided to watch Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball.” Neither of us had seen a Burns film in its entirety since “The Civil War” (i.e., before kids), mainly because we don’t watch much television and we don’t like getting trapped into sitting through long series. But this seemed worth taking on, especially since the 2022 Red Sox weren’t doing anything that warranted investing time in.

On Saturday night, we finally finished with 11th and final episode — one of two post-production add-ons, this one largely about the Red Sox’ 2004 World Series triumph, which, based on the amount of airtime he got, the Sox apparently staged for the benefit of Mike Barnicle. The steroid-induced rise and fall of Barry Bonds got quite a bit of attention as well, and it warmed our hearts to see Roger Clemens administered a thorough thrashing.

The original nine “innings” were well worth the time we put into them. Running two to two and a half hours per episode, they started slowly, with an overdose of lyrical tributes to the quiet joys of the National Pastime. Once Babe Ruth arrives on the scene, though, the series really kicks into gear, with lots of great archival footage. The highlight is Jackie Robinson, whom we follow from his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 until his premature death in 1972.

Buck O’Neil signing autographs in 2005. Photo (cc) 2005 by kc congdon.

“Baseball” is done in Burns’ characteristic style, with a lot of talking heads, including Bob Costas, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Studs Terkel, George Will and — the best, in our view — Buck O’Neil, a Negro Leagues star who died in 2006 and who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022. O’Neil comes across as calm and wise, with a slight edge of hurt and anger occasionally flashing in his eyes. We had the sense that he knew more about baseball and life than the rest of Burns’ guests put together.

The unevenness of the two add-ons came as a surprise — Burns’ attention to detail was largely missing, maybe because he farmed out much of the work to underlings. The sound editing was terrible, with the music often drowning out what the guest commentators had to say. Still, how can you not love watching the Sox dismantle the Yankees in the 2004 league championship series all over again?

We watched it by signing up for a PBS Documentaries subscription for $3.99 a month and then tuning in through Amazon Prime Video. If you’ve never seen “Baseball” and you’ve got 20-plus hours to spare, we recommend it.

David Ortiz and steroids

Heard about David Ortiz flunking a 2003 test for steroids while driving around a little while ago. Very sad. What we don’t know is whether Ortiz stopped using after he got caught. Still, with Manny Ramírez already outed, the ’04 and ’07 championships seem just a bit tainted now.

The reason I say “just a bit” is that it’s really starting to look as though it would be easier to compile a list of players who didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs during the recently concluded (I hope) Steroid Era.

Given the disproportionate amount of heat they’ve come under, maybe Roger Clemens’ and Barry Bonds’ biggest offenses were being too good — and, of course, being first-class jerks who may have lied under oath.

Steroids really do make you stronger

We’ve had a lively discussion going on in the comments section as to whether steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs actually improve baseball players’ performance. The bottom line: studies of major-league statistics are inconclusive.

But I think we’ve been looking at the wrong thing. As this well-sourced Wikipedia article makes clear, steroid use builds muscle and increases “baseline strength” by somewhere between 5 percent and 20 percent. All things being equal, a baseball player would rather be stronger than not.

I’m old enough to remember the stories about Carl Yastrzemski‘s punishing workouts following the 1966 season, which enabled him to up his homer total from 16 to 44 during the Red Sox’ “Impossible Dream” year. And there’s a reason that Jim Rice had 382 career home runs to Jerry Remy‘s seven. Strength matters, and it always has, long before steroids became available.

But now factor in another 5 percent to 20 percent in chemically induced strength. Granted, some will be able to translate that into more home runs or a harder fastball and some won’t. But to argue that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire et al. would have done just as well without steroids strikes me as silly. We know their enhancements made them stronger. That has to count for something.

Dom DiMaggio

The great Red Sox centerfielder has died at the age of 92. DiMaggio was well before my time, but a few years ago I learned quite a bit about his remarkable life and career in David Halberstam’s book “The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship.” Highly recommended.

When did Manny start juicing?

Since we already know that Manny Ramírez was using steroids, let’s engage in a little open and gross speculation. For all we know, Ramírez had been juicing for years. But there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that he began sometime around the end of the 2007 season.

You may recall that he put up some rather un-Manny-like numbers that year. He hit just 20 homers and drove in a mere 88 runs in 133 games. In 2006, by contrast, he hit 35 homers with 102 RBIs, despite playing in three fewer games. Moreover, in ’07 Ramírez occasionally looked as though his bat was slowing down. Yes, he came alive in the post-season, and he was a key to the Red Sox’ winning the World Series. But he was no longer the Manny of 1998-2005, when he averaged nearly 41 homers and 130 RBIs.

Then came the ’08 season. We were told that he was happier than he’d been in years. The power was back. But his once-harmless antics took a nasty turn. He assaulted Kevin Youkilis. (Yes, Youk can be pretty annoying, but his other 23 teammates somehow manage to restrain themselves.) He assaulted a 64-year-old clubhouse guy. And he sulked his way out of Boston. As Gerry Callahan writes in the Boston Herald, perhaps we were looking at “‘roid rage.”

I am not sure why the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan wants to give Ramírez any benefit of the doubt.

In one sense, I disagree with both Callahan and Ryan. Ramírez is not stupid. Rather, he is supremely self-centered. The rules have never applied to him, and he knows it. When you consider what he’s gotten away with over the years, why would he think it would be any different this time?

Photo (cc) by Jeff Wheeler and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Give us a break, Manny

From the New York Times:

Ramirez said in a statement released by the players’ association that he had been given a medication, not a steroid, that a doctor had recently prescribed him for a personal health issue.

“Unfortunately, the medication was banned under our drug policy,” Ramirez said. “Under the policy that mistake is now my responsibility. I have been advised not to say anything more for now. I do want to say one other thing: I’ve taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons.”

If Ramírez had a legitimate reason to be taking whatever he was taking, don’t you think he’d be fighting this tooth and nail? Then again, maybe he’s ready to take 50 games off. It’s been a long season, after all.

If A-Rod tipped pitches, he should be banned

Nick Cafardo’s blasé take on the latest Alex Rodriguez controversy has me scratching my head.

In her forthcoming book on A-Rod, Selena Roberts alleges that, when he was with the Texas Rangers, he would sometimes deliberately tip pitches to opposing hitters. It’s nice to know that David Ortiz would “beat the crap out of him” if he were the pitcher and the allegations were true. But why are we not talking about an immediate investigation, followed by a possible lifetime ban?

Cafardo writes in today’s Boston Globe:

This is New York, a city and a team built to handle controversy. So A-Rod took steroids in high school, the book alleges … so A-Rod went to strip clubs … so A-Rod allegedly tipped pitches to opposing hitters … so A-Rod had the Texas clubhouse guy put toothpaste on his toothbrush every day.

Beyond the entertainment value, who cares?

Who cares? Other than the apparent absence of a gambling angle, what A-Rod is alleged to have done is akin to throwing games.

Roberts is no hack — it was she who flushed out the first round of A-Rod allegations, which turned out to be true. Yet no one seems to be all that upset about the possibility that Rose — er, Rodriguez — was stabbing his Texas teammates and fans in the back.

Roger Clemens’ crash landing

I was working and didn’t see any of Roger Clemens’ testimony. But this, from the New York Times, is enough for me:

Mr. Clemens testified that in those conversations with Mr. Pettitte, he was talking about his wife’s use of H.G.H. one time and on another occasion was referring to something he saw on a television show. Mr. Clemens sought to rebut Mr. Pettitte’s sworn and damaging statements to the committee that Mr. Clemens told him point blank that he had used H.G.H.

But Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who chairs the committee, clearly did not believe Mr. Clemens, and pointed out that Mr. Pettitte’s wife, Laura, had also given an affidavit in which she confirmed that her husband told her about his conversation with Mr. Clemens shortly after it took place.

As ridiculous as Clemens’ insistence that he didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs may be, you certainly couldn’t throw the book at him on Brian McNamee’s say-so. A lot of observers have fallen for the ridiculous notion that McNamee had no incentive to lie. In fact, he had every incentive to say what prosecutors wanted him to say. Pettitte, on the other hand, is a longtime friend of Clemens who is facing no legal consequences for any of this.

It’s over. Never mind whether Clemens will go to the Hall of Fame. He could soon be facing much more serious problems. To quote U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., “Mr. Clemens, once again I remind you, you are under oath.”

Today’s media scandal

How was it that the names of players who were not in the Mitchell Report wound up being identified as steroid users earlier in the day? As Dan Shaughnessy writes in the Boston Globe, “Some of the names were pretty interesting. Where do those players go to reclaim their reputations?”

By many accounts, the false positives originated with WNBC in New York, which posted a correction late in the afternoon, after George Mitchell had finally released his report. But was WNBC alone, with others merely following the station’s lead? Or were there others who also broke this toxic non-story?

(Rotten) apples and oranges

Shouldn’t we make a moral distinction between Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, who’ve been accused of taking steroids in order to throw harder and hit the ball farther, and Andy Pettitte and Mo Vaughn, who alleged took human growth hormone so they’d be able to bounce back from injuries more quickly? It seems to me that the former compromised the integrity of the game, whereas the latter was merely dangerous and stupid.

Here’s a PDF of the Mitchell report. Search for Pettitte’s and Vaughn’s names and you’ll see what I mean.