BOSTON – Ken Burns stood atop the Green Monster and inhaled a swallow of chilly air. It was about 11 p.m., and he had been at Fenway Park for nine hours awaiting this moment. Burns needed it to be perfect, because if he was going to break his own rules, he’d settle for nothing less.
Burns had said he would never make a sequel. And here he was, at his favorite ballpark, with his favorite cinematographer, watching his favorite team, and doing just that. The nine-part “Baseball” series Burns delivered on PBS in 1994 wasn’t just a documentary about a sport. It was an oral history of the nation’s last 100 years told through a game that so often mirrors its country’s fortunes, and the 15 years since begged for Burns’ eye to be turned on baseball once more.
So what started as a seed in Burns’ head following the 2004 World Series bloomed into what he’s deeming the “10th inning” – a look at steroids and statistics, the Latin American and Japanese revolution, dynasties built and curses broken, and how no matter the feelings of the public about baseball or its flagging popularity, its place in America remains unchanged.
“It’s an incredibly instructive period,” Burns said. “You don’t need to have these black-and-white judgments. We have to have a complicated relationship with what happened. Baseball requires stories to be told.
“In all my films, I’m said I ask one deceptively simple question: Who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans? You don’t answer that question. You hopefully deepen it.”
Which brought Burns and his five-person crew to the Monster seats, minutes before the final bank of lights went out for the night. The arc of the 10th inning will be told through a day at the stadium, and Fenway, his Sistine Chapel for the last 37 years, was an easy choice. The plan is for the film to close with Fenway going dark.
“I wanted to end this on Buck’s induction to the Hall of Fame,” Burns said, referring to Buck O’Neil, the breakout star of the original “Baseball” with his spirited retelling of days spent in the Negro Leagues. A committee of academics and historians didn’t elect O’Neil in his final shot at the Hall, and he died eight months later.
“I’m still threatening to do something with Buck at the end,” Burns said.
The film is scheduled to debut in September 2010 on PBS, and after one more shoot over the weekend in Brooklyn, Burns will hunker down at his house in Walpole, N.H., and start cutting together what’s supposed to be a two-hour film. How he’ll cram the ’94 strike and the Yankees’ dynasty and Sosa and McGwire and Bonds and steroids and the 2004 ALCS and the Red Sox finally winning and countless other things into two hours is another question altogether.
Burns concerned himself Wednesday with gathering the minutiae of a day at Fenway. Buddy Squires, the brilliant cinematographer and Burns’ partner for more than 30 years, captured batting practice and the national anthem and the drunken revelry of fans bleating “Sweet Caroline.” The others in the crew – producer Dave McMahon, Burns’ eldest daughter, Sarah, assistant cameraman Pat Kelly and soundman Frank Coakley – ran from one corner of Fenway to the next, collaborating on almost every shot.
They marveled at the grounds crew’s attention to detail, how one member plopped individual grains of sand into the wet ground and how another tossed cumulus clouds of dirt.
“What we need to get is some Catholic Mass music for this,” Burns said.
The whole experience is religious for Burns, from the first five-day shoot in the Dominican Republic to the spring training 2007 interview with Ichiro Suzuki (in Japanese, to be subtitled) to the mornings spent at Camden Yards, Citi Field and Fenway catching the sun crest over each park.
Whether unveiling a film on sports, war, race, music or his latest on the national parks, Burns cuts into the human experience and leaves an impression on his audience. Every step he took at Fenway, someone called out his name or asked for an autograph. He obliged. Burns is unfailingly polite and charming, and he plays the part of documentarian well, from the blue blazer-and-jeans uniform to the prose that flows from his mouth.
“You speak in perfect paragraphs,” said Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox’s president, who Wednesday followed Burns on a NESN broadcast, which was like going on after Richard Pryor at the Apollo.
Burns visited with friends Lucchino and Red Sox owner Tom Werner later in the night before rejoining the crew for the ninth inning. When Jonathan Papelbon worked out of a jam for a 5-4 Red Sox victory, Burns lifted his right arm in triumph.
“Surprised he didn’t raise both,” McMahon said.
It was Boston finally winning a World Series, after all, that got him back here. Burns stuck with the Red Sox for all those years because he felt like the Red Sox stuck with him. Though baseball hasn’t been quite so reciprocal over the last decade, it’s a tough sport to shake, something to which Burns can attest.
“I have a love affair with the game,” he said.
So he was hoping that final shot would look as stunning as he imagined it. All of the other lights at Fenway were out. Sarah was in the control room to relay the countdown to the crew. It started: 20, 19, 18 …
This was a documentary. No do-overs. If something went wrong, they’d have to figure out something in the editing room.
10, 9, 8 …
Burns stood tall. The cold didn’t bother him. Squires had framed the shot perfectly. This was it.
3, 2, 1 …
The lights went dark. The rest of the city cast its glow toward Fenway. The 97-year-old stadium was shrouded by the city that adores it. The 10th inning had its final image.
It was gorgeous.