The star of Ken Burns' The Tenth Inning — besides baseball itself — is Barry Bonds.
"He had to be," Burns says.
While Babe Ruth did it on hot dogs and beer and Hank Aaron on a diet no one ever questioned, Bonds is suspected to have set baseball's all-time home-run record on steroids. So Bonds looms large throughout the four hours of Burns' follow-up to his Emmy-winning 1994 documentary series Baseball.
Burns and partner Lynn Novick — whose credits include the masterful The Civil War and Jazz — expansively cover the last 16 years of the sport, including the Boston Red Sox (New Englander Burns' favorite team) finally ending their 86-year title drought in 2004 as well as the New York Yankees' resurgence in the '90s and Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's Iron Man record of most consecutive games played. They also show how the sport helped the nation heal after 9/11.
But America's conflicted feelings toward homer king Bonds are downright Homeric, Burns tells TVGuide.com in an interview.
"It's a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, almost classical dimensions. This is a great hero with the hubris and the arrogance," Burns says. "We assume that heroes are perfect, right? And yet, if we study the Greeks, we know that heroes have very obvious strengths and very obvious weaknesses, and actually heroism is defined by the negotiation between these strengths and weaknesses."
Among the talking heads in The Tenth Inning (including Bob Costas, Keith Olbermann, Tom Verducci and Jon Miller) is comedian Chris Rock, who looks into the camera and utters an explanation if not a defense of Bonds and other suspected steroids users such as Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens: "Who in the whole country wouldn't take a pill to make more money at their job? You would. ... 'Hey, there's a pill and you're gonna get paid like Steven Spielberg.' You would take the pill. You just would."
VIDEO: Burn delves back into baseball
So, would Burns take the pill? "My answer is no, but his point is well-taken," says Burns, who didn't respond to Rock on-camera. "We are a pharmacological culture, and we give our kids pills to do better in school and we take pills to do better in the bedroom. And we're suddenly shocked — shocked — when we find our players have done the same thing?
"But more to the point, this was in a climate of deregulation everywhere in the United States. And, in fact, the availability of these drugs had to do in large measure to deregulation. And baseball was unregulated, and these players without rules were free to do whatever they wanted to do without punishment.
"Just as in our larger society we have had our comeuppance as a result of deregulation, financially and in many other aspects of our national life, so too is baseball coming to terms with that as well."
Burns says he rethought his decision not to do a sequel because of "the explosion in 2005 of the steroid scandal onto the front pages."
"Baseball is an ongoing story," he says, noting that "a lot of water has gone under the baseball bridge" since his first history of the sport. "They've been two of the most consequential decades not only in baseball history but in the larger American history that we think baseball so precisely mirrors — good and bad."
Besides steroids, another big focus of The Tenth Inning is the 1994 strike that looked like it was going to destroy the 150-year-old game — then wound up being positive for the game because the players and the owners didn't realize how much they had jeopardized the faith of the fans; once they did, they vowed to work together not to run that risk again.
And while race was covered in each of the first nine parts of Baseball, the 10th part looks at the huge influx of Latino players in the major leagues (particularly from the Dominican Republic) — even while African American players remain slightly underrepresented.
So we're definitely still not in a postracial period, Burns avers, adding: "The opprobrium that's been heaped on [President Barack] Obama is proof ... If he were a white guy, there might not even be a Tea Party."
Still, Burns says baseball is always at its finest when it's leading rather than following, citing Jackie Robinson breaking through the color barrier as "the first real progress in civil rights since the Civil War."
"I think baseball's meritocracy is one of its most admirable features even now as, in our larger country, we demonize the contributions of the very immigrant groups that baseball has wholly embraced."
The Tenth Inning airs in two-hour installments, Tuesday and Wednesday at 8/7c on PBS.