When I got there, the Bronx had already burned. In the mid-80s, I was a reporter for The Riverdale Press covering Bronx politics. The borough was still reeling from the abandonment of the previous decade, and a covey of politicians had its hands out for Federal rebuilding dollars. The Bronx was open for business, but a lot of the money went into the pockets of prominent Democrats. A young Federal prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani was making his name bringing cases against virtually the entire political leadership of the borough, working in tandem with a wily old District Attorney named Mario Merola – a Democrat who was prosecuting his fellow clubhouse members.
It was great time to learn the reporter’s craft, and as the scandals hit our front page, George Steinbrenner brought Billy Martin back for the third of four tours as manager of the Yankees. He broke his arm that September in a fight with pitcher Ed Whitson. I spent a lot time around the Bronx County Courthouse and the Stadium neighborhood, covered regional planning issues and listening to community leaders who vowed to bring the borough back. In those days, rubble-strewn lots and burned-out building shells were common; one misguided program put decals of fake curtained windows – complete with shades and flower puts – up over the grim, empty window frames.
It was also the time when Steinbrenner first started talking about moving the team to New Jersey or elsewhere. Strangely, the Bronx plays the smallest of supporting roles in The Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler – about what the character of Mickey Rivers gets in the highly-promoted ESPN mini-series, which kicked off this week with a disastrous bit of television programming: a 70-minute delay while the network waited for Vlad Guererro to win the increasingly lame homerun hitting contest at the All Star festivities. The Bronx may be burning, but the borough itself is forgotten.
And if the first installment is indicative, the whole venture may well lack the real heat of what should be a compelling take. One thing’s for sure: without John Turturro’s stunning potrayal of the mercurial Martin, the series might have the vibe of a sloppy History Channel re-enactment.