Most topics can be explained in 18.5 hours, but not baseball.
It's so much more than a game with a winner and loser; it's the hope, philosophy and history of a nation's spirit played out on a diamond. Persisting into the bottom of the ninth, with thousands cheering a ball sailing over a fence or an infielder running backward, mitt outstretched to catch a pop-up, infuses baseball with eternal optimism.
"Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns," the 18.5-hour 1994 documentary, beautifully and exhaustively captured the subject -- up to that point in history. So much has happened since then a sequel is warranted.
PBS' "The Tenth Inning," Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 28 and 29 (check local listings), artfully covers the explosive past 16 years in four hours.
"It's a complicated story, among the most," says Burns, in his Manhattan office with co-director and co-producer Lynn Novick. "And the last two decades were among the most complicated in its history."
We're not talking minor rule adjustments here, but a season-ending strike that canceled a World Series and repelled lifelong fans, greed that made robber barons look like Buddhist monks, and an influx of immigrant players. The film chronicles how scouting starts with boys who play on dirt lots in the Dominican Republic, using rocks as bases.
"Trying to tell that story is revelatory," Novick says. "The way businesses find talent across the borders these days, it adds layers and layers to the discussion."
Since the original film, the Red Sox twice won the World Series, and Burns, a lifelong Sox fan, beams. Despite the sentiments of the Red Sox Nation, that alone would not have justified this update. The seismic change in baseball, on which the film concentrates, is steroid use.
Relying on journalists who love and have long covered the game, the film shows them discussing what happens when men become science experiments. Among them is Bob Costas, who says of Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's all-time home run record, "The whole thing was a joyless march to the inevitable."
"Barry Bonds is the most interesting, tragic Shakespearean figure in the game," Burns says.After 1994, shattered records and 50-home-run seasons became commonplace. Congress questioned players, and the game was cheapened. The film reminds us that when players started using steroids, there were no rules against them.
Howard Bryant, author of books about baseball players and steroids, says, "The fan has decided the game is more important than players. The game is more important than the owners. The game is more important than money."
When players returned after the 1994-95 strike, they were shocked when fans booed.
Then Cal Ripken Jr., who had slept in his Little League uniform so he could be ready the next day and who signed autographs for hours (free of charge), played his 2,131st consecutive game five months after the strike. His work ethic reminded fans why they love the baseball.
"In the game, we have time for interactions with people around us that make it reflective and interactive," Burns says. "You always talk about who you saw a game with."
"Other sports are more like MTV -- constant action," Novick says. "Your brain is stimulated in a way that is a little overwhelming. Baseball rewards your attention."
In part two, "Bottom of the Tenth," Pedro Martinez, born into a family of pitchers in the Dominican Republic, doesn't bother with modesty.
"I'm fearless, intense," he says. "If you can't hit a change-up, I'm sorry, I'll throw it again."
We see how players are made, including Ichiro Suzuki, whose father put him through three hours of drills a day. Bonds, whose father and godfather (Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays) also knew a bit about baseball, was racking up superhuman stats in 2001.
Then life changed on Sept. 11.
Plan to record this because chances are you will stop to talk -- or cry -- during the section on the terrorist attacks.
The first Yankees game after the attacks was in Chicago, where fans held signs that read "We love New York." What other sport could have brought together the nation as baseball did after 9/11?
Then baseball did what it always does: It broke hearts. The Yankees, making it to their fifth World Series in six years, lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that had been playing for only four.
As the country started to rebuild, baseball records continued to fall, and salaries continued to skyrocket. In 1975, a free agent earned four times the average American salary. Now it is up to 50 times.
The baseball commissioner imposed drug testing for steroids -- but only for minor league players, which made regulations governing the majors the weakest drug prevention policy in professional sports.
"Is it possible to have a renaissance and a calamity at the same time?" Bryant asks.
Yes, because this is baseball, reborn each spring with eternal optimism. And, who personifies hope better than Joe Torre? When he became the Yankees' manager, the film tells us, no one had ever played in or managed that many games without getting to a World Series.
As Torre says, "This game is too beautiful to have a lasting scar on it."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times