The Bronx is Burning, But It Lacks the High Heat

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.

It’s a shame that the Bronx itself makes only the most cursory of appearances, because the Yankees really are tried to their place in the South Bronx. The book and series link the “Bronx Zoo” aspects of the Bombers’ title run to the Son of Sam murders – but any New Yorker knows that most of the attacks took place in Mets territory, in Queens. And most didn’t happen during the ’77 baseball season. By the time of the Yankees post-season run, David Berkowitz was already in jail.

Besides, I think the Bronx itself is a better story. The destruction of entire neighborhoods, the insurance fires and arson cases, the flight of the white middle class, and the stubborn resistance of a certain breed of tough community activist – all of this took place within a mile or two of Yankee Stadium. The contrast between the high-flying, star-laden Yankees and the limousines that lined the players’ parking lot with the urban scourge just a block or two away – now that’s literary contrast, a tension to drive the plot. [For those interested in the real story, I highly recommend the Jill Jonnes book We’re still here: The rise, fall, and resurrection of the South Bronx, first published in 1986.]

Ironically, Turturro played Howard Cosell in the TV movie Monday Night Mayhem – it was Cosell who uttered the “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” line during the ’77 World Series as ABC’s cameras picked up the smoke of Bronx tenements going up in flames just blocks from the Fall Classic.

Turturro’s portrayal iis so pitch-perfect – despite the comic Legolas-like prostethic ears they pinned on him – that he brings the rare suspension of disbelief to the screen. There’s an intensity there, a sadness, an alcoholic fury that reads true.

Not so with the rest of the case, or much else in the first episode. Oliver Platt as Steinbrenner. Well. The plaid coats are great, but Larry David was better. [Here’s another Seinfeld connection: one of the producers is veteran writer Joe Davola – that’s right, “crazy” Joe Davola’s namesake.]

Daniel Sunjata (the prominent 9-11 conspiracy theorist) plays Reggie Jackson, but the potrayal lacks the sparkle of the real Reggie. Then again, the actor is hurt by a very bad fake Afro and some Yankee pinstripes that lack the at-a-glance authenticity that a baseball fan is sure to look for. All the uniforms just look fake – they’ve overdone the high stirrups and tight pants, and the lettering seems off.

Other cheesy touches: steroid-laden Jason Giambi as an authentic New York cabbie, Sport magazine writer Robert Ward (he’s the guy who got the “straw who stirs the drink” quote from Jackson) plays himself 30 years on sagging chins and all, and the too-obvious CGI work to recreate a full Yankee Stadium circa ’77.

Couple of small things I enjoyed very much: Michael Rispoli’s turn as Jimmy Breslin (seems perfect) and the groovin’ Shaft-like music beds over the headlines and vintage footage cut scenes. Took me back. Oh, and here’s another one of the wacky connections in this series.

Joe Grifasi, the veteran character actor who plays Yogi Berra in Bronx is Burning, played Phil Rizzuto in the made-for-TV flick 61* about the Roger Maris season in 1961. Christopher McDonald, who plays Joe DiMaggio in Bronx is Burning, portrayed Mel Allen in 61*. Go figure.

And there’s another big irony at play. The series opens in the second year of a rebuilt Yankee Stadium – a new framework but built around the same field made famous by Ruth, Gehring, and Dimaggio.

Next year, that field will see its last game ever. A New York City mayor has done what the Boston Red Sox couldn’t do – literally tear down Yankee Stadium and destroy that historic field. It’s a crime on a par with the midnight destruction of Pennsylvania Station in the 60s (and this is from a Mets fan).

Oh, and that Mayor? He’s from Boston.