Ken Burns on Stephen Strasburg
When I asked Ken Burns to compare Stephen Strasburg to previously heralded baseball arrivals, he didn't go straight to a pitching phenom from the '80s, which has been the popular move in recent days.
"We have a different kind of 24/7 media saturation, but you had that kind of excitement when Ted Williams so dominated the Pacific Coast League," Burns told me Monday morning. "He performed so spectacularly, and then came up and continued to perform spectacularly in his first season, and then year after year did the same. I'm thinking about that."
Indeed, Williams tore up the PCL with the San Diego Padres, then won the Triple Crown with the Minneapolis Millers in 1938, hitting .336 with 43 homers and 142 RBI, before breaking in permanently with the Red Sox. But were fans so impatient for the arrival of Williams in the big leagues, counting down the hours and examining his every minor-league appearance?
"That's a harder thing to gauge, because we are just saturated in media," Burns said. "If you cared about the game, you were aware that this amazing hitter in the Pacific Coast League was being elevated to the Major Leagues, was going to play for the Boston Red Sox and then had this great first season. I'm not sure how to make the comparison of apples to oranges. It's the same thing with politics; I still don't know of a dirtier election than the election of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams, but it can't compare to the media saturation now....
"It's hard to compare these things, but I can't imagine with this kind of saturation that takes place today that there's anybody who's a casual baseball fan who doesn't have a lot of expectations for Stephen Strasburg."
Burns, of course, will be throwing out the first pitch on Tuesday night, an event scheduled several months ago as part of his promotional tour for The Tenth Inning
Pitch, the four-hour update to his epic Baseball documentary that will premiere this fall.
(The new film touches only briefly on the Nationals, since "we're still historians, so we like to sort of put on the brakes" with more recent developments, Burns said. It's not a film about steroids, but it is a film about the Steroid Era, so Burns said there is plenty about PEDs, although he said he "feel a little more sanguine about it than a lot of people." There are also appearances from both current (Tom Boswell) and former (Howard Bryant) Post sports writers. As for baseball's return to D.C., "you'll have to wait for The Eleventh Inning," Burns joked.)
Burns isn't bringing any cameras to Nats Park on Tuesday, but he's just as curious as the rest of us.
"More than curious," Burns said. "I would be thrilled if he succeeded. There are so many arguments about how baseball has slipped, how it's not the national pastime. It's ridiculous. Of course it's the national pastime. There's only one game that's accompanied every decade of our national existence. We recognize it, and it's been the national pastime from the end of the 19th century onward. The only competition early in the 20th century was college football, and that was no competition at all. Now, because of the numbers for the Super Bowl, you have other sports that inflate their popularity, but baseball's played every day, it's got television going on 162 days a year for every team. That's a spectacular amount of baseball....
"What we have is a game that's so central to our existence that whether we know it or not, it seeps in. And one of the great questions now is how is [Strasburg] gonna do. Will this make the difference for the Nationals, who are hanging in there? What does he bring to them, and the fan base, and the sense of pride of baseball in the capital city?"
I also mentioned the occasional Jeezus references about Strasburg, and asked Burns if that nickname has a historical precedent in baseball circles.
"Hilarious," Burns said. "I don't know whether there's a specific precedent, but you've got that hyperbole that always attends the phenom, and then you set the kid up for failure, which is unfair to him and, in many ways, unfair to ourselves.....
"This kid has a lot riding on his shoulders tomorrow night. It's now moved out of historical precedent and into kind of The Natural; archetypal fiction in which we endow our baseball players with certain superhuman capabilities that transcend the game and life itself."
I asked Burns why he wasn't bringing the camera crews, and he said he was confident the media contingent would handle the challenge.
"I think maybe someone else will be covering it," he joked. "Just don't pay too much attention to the guy throwing out the first pitch."
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