Monday, July 09, 2007

Pinstripes, politics and problems

Today's column reviews ESPN's new miniseries about the '77 Yankees, "The Bronx Is Burning," which has three strong performances at the center but tries to do too much (or too little) in adapting Jonathan Mahler's book:

"I'm the straw that stirs the drink," new Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson boldly declared in a bar-side interview during 1977 spring training, dismissing team captain Thurman Munson by claiming, "Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad."

This would, in the end, turn out to be one of the less controversial moments for the '77 Bronx Bombers, a team caught up in a series of interlocking turf wars between Jackson, Munson, hard-drinking manager Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner at the peak of his tabloid-baiting powers. That these Yankees managed to (barely) overcome their differences to win the World Series would seem to make them ideal subjects for the miniseries treatment. Yet ESPN's "The Bronx Is Burning" isn't nearly as engrossing as the subject matter would suggest -- especially since it has so many other subjects.

To read the full thing, click here.


Adam said...

The book is great, but it's an overwhelming subject for an ESPN miniseries to tackle in full. Axing all the non-baseball stuff unless it was immediately relevant (like the burning referenced in the title) probably made more sense than addressing such material in a more cursory fashion.

Still, I'll watch.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I'd agree, if they actually cut out all of it, but this half-baked approach with the prominent Son of Sam subplot is the worst of all possible worlds. Either tackle everything or just do a baseball-only miniseries, and they did neither.

Anonymous said...

ESPN deserves credit for making a large commitment of time and resources to a book I found hugely entertaining.

Still, your description justifies my fear that they failed to walk the difficult line between the team and the other events of that summer.

Because it's ESPN, they had to put most of the focus on the Yankees, yet those of us who followed the team back then know most of the stories. You astutely noted how we can't help but lament the lack of Nettles wisecracks, Piniella tantrums, Lyle antics (not to mention Rivers gambling losses and general Cliff Johnson hilarity).

Even though I was a huge fan, my favorite passage of the book was the minute-by-minute explanation of what caused the blackout. I also liked the inside politics of the heavyweight mayoral race.

If they wanted to focus purely on baseball, a better story would have been on the '78 Yankees and Red Sox. You'd be able to throw in personalities like Bill Lee, Yaz, Tiant, and Zimmer.

That year, there were so many little minidramas on both sides: Zim refusing to pull the injured Butch Hobson and refusing to pitch the healthy Bill Lee; Martin's humiliating "resignation" and subsequent resurrection five days later; Fisk/Munson; Lyle/Gossage; the calming influence of Bob Lemon, the Boston Massacre, all leading up to 10/2/78.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I've only seen the first three hours, but I understand the blackout's dealt with in some way in a later episode; I'm just not clear on whether it gets the Bella Abzug archival footage treatment or if they attempt to dramatize it the way they do the Son of Sam scenes.

I had forgotten all about Cliff Johnson's wackiness, but now I feel the need to search the attic for my copy of "The Best Team Money Can Buy."

Unknown said...
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Rickey said...

Well it's ESPN, what do you think they're going to give more time to: baseball or cultural history? Still, based on the other reivews I've read, this show sounds like a must see. Turturro and Platt alone make it worth watching.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Well it's ESPN, what do you think they're going to give more time to: baseball or cultural history?

I'd be fine if the miniseries stuck entirely to the baseball, which is by far the best thing about it. Again, it's this half-assed approach to the source material where you get a main course of baseball and this out-of-place side order of serial killer. If they weren't going to keep all of the non-baseball stuff, they should have just cut all of it out and done a straight Bronx Zoo saga.

Jmags said...

At least you get to see an actor portraying the legendary Jimmy Breslin!