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A conversation with filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about their film, "The Tenth Inning."
GP: Obviously the Latin contributions are enormous. Is there a stylistic contribution too?
Burns: Just as the Negro Leagues helped to bring a different kind of style of play, the Latin players brought the same kind of spirit. When you go to the Dominican Republic and film these kids in bare feet on rocky back alleys swinging two-by-twos to hit rags wrapped in twine, you begin to see an elemental enthusiasm for the game that we haven’t experienced in this country for an awful long time.
GP: Do you see the talent pool expanding beyond its current boundaries?
Burns: As baseball has understood the global possibilities, we are seeing talent spring up in new areas. It’s an exciting notion that we may one day get the baseball equivalent of a Yao Ming and open up that extraordinary talent pool to Major League Baseball. It only makes the game better and brings us closer together.
GP: Your film has a wonderful interview with Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki. Fans have certainly learned to appreciate the skills of Japanese and Korean players.
Novick: The Asian players go to school for baseball in a way American kids do not. They develop mastery of the technical aspects of the game at a level that kids in America at that age don’t yet have. They have an extraordinary practice ethic quite aside from performance in the game. We worked on this film from not only an American perspective. Until we talked with Ichiro, we hadn’t thought about how important Ichiro is in Japan because he has been successful here.
GP: Baseball has always been viewed as a game interwoven with American fabric. Is there a limit to how much globalization fans might tolerate? Might baseball face a backlash that reflects current anti-immigration sentiments?
Burns: I don’t believe it for a second. If that’s the case, then America itself is wrong. Baseball is its natural pastime and its national reflection. The country can’t ignore globalization. Baseball led on the issue of race and integration of the game. Think of the challenge if you were a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and a racist. What do you do when Jackie Robinson arrives? Do you quit being a fan? Do you change allegiances? In more subtle ways, globalization forces us to rethink the nature of things. And while we periodically seem to be taking a step backwards — the anti-immigration movements of the early 20th century and now with the Tea Party — we still have a forward momentum that suggests this country is perpetually enriched by renewing itself with the spirit of immigrant labor.
GP: Do you think we are likely to see some political dynamics next season, with the MLB All-Star game scheduled for Arizona?
Burns: We made a conscious decision, with great regret, not to visit Arizona on our promotional tour. We don’t think [its new immigration laws] reflect well on what America is. Baseball is so far out ahead on this that we may be able — through the comments and protests of players and perhaps even Major League Baseball — join a much more intelligent discussion than what has been going on there for the last several months.
Novick: I don’t know if the Latin ball players will feel comfortable voicing a political opinion here.
GP: So bottom line, is baseball better off or worse off than when you left it almost two decades ago?
Novick: Much better. The game is tremendously resilient. It has endured and it will endure.