‘The Bronx is Burning’

We have another torrid pennant race on our hands in the American League. The dog days are seething soon to be followed by a stretch drive that has the promise of a barnburner. The wild-card scramble should last until the final gasps of September. Nor if I were the Red Sox would I dare assume my seven-game lead early in August guarantees anything. Eight teams contend and there’s barely a dime’s difference distinguishing six of them. Haunting the scene are those eternal pests from the Bronx; as oafish and brooding as ever. The more things change the more they remain the same.

And maybe 30 years from now it all will be grist for an eight-hour melodrama about a distant summer that revolved around baseball even as the wider world was spinning wildly out of control. Life may not quite begin on Opening Day, but baseball as a metaphor for life in our times is a concept that has legs.

An interesting illustration of the point comes from ESPN, the chronically under-achieving and often infuriating all-sports TV network. Much of the time, ESPN falls short. The quality of its journalism is generally shoddy. Too much of what they do trivializes the material, reducing it to mere boy-talk. The format is too stiff. There’s a singsong quality to the endless torrent of highlights. They prefer to get by with bells, whistles, winks and guffaws when good, strong, well-reasoned declarative sentences buttressed with facts would better serve. Is it a news service or a situation comedy? Sometimes it seems they can’t make up their minds.

But with their extraordinary access, immense resources, and endless airtime, which is the most precious commodity in broadcasting, the poobahs at ESPN can’t miss scoring a strike here and there. They’ve done so this summer with their ongoing, weekly series, ‘‘The Bronx is Burning,’’ a turgid drama that re-hashes the 1977 pennant race against the backdrop of its turbulent times. Maybe you had to have been there. But for my money, it’s terrific.

The series is based on Jonathan Mahler’s book, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning!” Mahler can thank Howard Cosell and his memorable knack for gross hyperbole for the catchy title. Those were Howard’s very words delivered in the course of a nighttime World Series game in October when a building in the Bronx that was large but of little importance burned down during the middle innings. Nobody was hurt and the blaze was soon quelled. But because it was close enough to the stadium and easy to show, ABC dwelled on it and because it gave Cosell an easy pretext for one of his weighty remonstrations, it became an issue cast ridiculously out of proportion with its substance. In terms of the many dreadful things that happened that year to New York that fire was peanuts. But on a casual whim, network TV made it symbolic.

Whatever, the stuff of 1977 required no exaggeration to make it compelling. The AL East pennant race was a snarling season long tong-war featuring the Red Sox, Orioles and Yankees. Much more fascinating were the internal wars in the Yankee clubhouse where the egos and neuroses of George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson clashed mightily in a season-long Freudian Frolic that made life for we of the sporting media utterly joyful. Meanwhile, out on the streets, New York was bankrupt. Hoods owned the neighborhoods.

And a creep who called himself, ‘‘Son of Sam’’ ruled the night. It was a strange time.

‘‘Bronx is Burning’’ tries to capture all of that. The ‘‘Mean Streets’’ stuff is threaded throughout the story and makes an interesting counterpoint. But this series is mainly about the baseball and it succeeds and that is noteworthy because both Hollywood and Network TV have undistinguished records when it comes to doing baseball. It’s hard to know why, but baseball stories are the toughest to tell on film. Other sports have fared much better. The log on football has been uneven but superb cinema has been done on boxing, track, golf, and horse racing. Even works on basketball and hockey have been noteworthy: “Hoosiers” and “Slapshot.”

But with its many layers and complex sociology, baseball has long eluded the filmmakers. “The Natural” had its charms. But it’s essentially a fable. “Major League” was entertaining but essentially a farce. “Pride of the Yankees” was a moving melodrama beloved in its times, but its baseball scenes were embarrassing. Jimmy Stewart was more believable than Gary Cooper as a ballplayer but “The Stratton Story” was little less limp. And then there was the all-time miscue featuring Anthony Perkins pretending to be Jimmy Piersall. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, brilliantly captured an ancient and near-mad Ty Cobb but that movie had little to do with the game itself. My own favorite baseball flic -- to this point -- would be “Bang the Drum Slowly”, the best of the Mark Harris baseball classics starring Michael Moriarty as author, the pitcher/narrator, and a very young Robert DeNiro as Pearson, the doomed catcher. It’s a gem.

“Bronx is Burning” is, of course, not fiction. Not even Hollywood could have dreamed up such stuff. A fictional work about raw, robust and outsized pieces of work like Martin, Steinbrenner and Jackson would seem comic parody having little relation to reality. At their extremes, they would make the clowns in “Major League” seem believable. It’s mighty hard to invent such wonderful characters.

And they are strongly depicted in this series. Far and away the best is Martin, played by a certain John Turturro. I know nothing of the fellow though I’m told he’s a respected theatrical pro. In this performance, he is brilliant.

Let me put it this way. I knew Billy Martin. I had upwards to 100 occasions to observe Billy and his antics up close and personal. You -- Mr. Turturro, Sir -- ARE Billy Martin. The performance is almost eerie. It is no small achievement. Martin was incredibly complex. His moods were intensely mercurial.

His demons were real and feverish. His strengths were monumental. His weaknesses were narrow and petty. Billy Martin had Shakespearean dimensions and the actor, Turturro, has harnessed them impressively.

The role of Jackson, handled by Daniel Sunjata, is less impressive but adequate. Sunjata is capable but lacks Reggie’s presence and aura. There’s no question that Reggie was a trial, when the mood moved him. But there was also unmistakably something majestic about the fellow. It’s a note that’s too high for Sunjata. Steinbrenner’s profound subtleties also elude actor Oliver Platt who conveys George’s bluster effectively but fails to scratch his deeper levels of doubt and regret. Platt’s ‘‘Boss’’ borders on caricature. You hope poor George doesn’t take it personally.

There are other fine performances. The depictions of Gabe Paul, the Yanks’ delightful GM at the time, and Yogi Berra, whose buffoonery is too often exaggerated, are uncanny. So are the renderings of newspapermen Henry Hecht and Steve Jacobson. The ink-stained wretches are taken seriously in this potboiler. That’s a first. The portrayals of Lou Piniella, Mickey Rivers, Fran Healy, and Bucky Dent are also solid. Thurman Munson is right on the money.

Most amazing of all, they have stuck to the script resisting the usual embellishments. The story they are telling is the one that happened. Having been there and had the pleasure of covering so much of it I can vouch for that. It’s rare when you can say that about a TV Docu-drama or anything the Dream Merchants try to do about real people and real events.

Catch it if you can. It’s halfway done and the Red Sox are still in first place. But the Yankees are about to win 38 of their last 51 games nailing the pennant the last week whereupon Reggie debuts as ‘‘Mr. October’’ even as George smiles and Billy weeps. On second thought, card-carrying citizens of Red Sox Nation may wish to be excused.

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