Indifference is rarely a word associated with the New York Yankees, especially the 1970s teams that were so easy to worship or detest thanks to the amount of money George Steinbrenner was spending, the arrogance of the players and the great pitching. Yet in telling the story of the 1977 championship season, against the backdrop of Son of Sam, a mayoral election and in later episodes, one assumes, the blackout and destruction of the Bronx, ESPN’s eight-episode mini-series plays remarkably flat despite a sharp portrayal by John Turturro as the eye at the center of the storm, Billy Martin. In the first three segs, “The Bronx Is Burning” lacks the compelling detail of Jonathan Mahler’s book, choosing instead to paint certain characters — Steinbrenner and Jimmy Breslin, for example — with only the broadest strokes.
Seventy-seven was the year Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata) arrived in New York after a quick season in Baltimore, and no one in baseball wanted the slugger more than Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt). The Yankees had been swept by the Reds in the ’76 World Series, and Martin and Yankee president Gabe Paul (Kevin Conway) were looking for a solution in a single player, specifically Bobby Grich. Once he signed with the Angels, Martin and Paul took a deep breath and followed orders when Jackson arrived.
During the 1977 spring training, cops in New York start to connect five shootings over the previous eight months — the victims are all female, brunette with shoulder-length hair and either on deserted streets or in parked cars. Producers attempt to stay true to the book, but, as this is a series for a sports network, they can’t wait to get back to the simmering clubhouse tensions. ESPN supplied three episodes; they cover 1976 and up to about June 1977, when Jackson is slumping, Son of Sam David Berkowitz is writing letters to Breslin and Bella Abzug is taking the lead at the polls in the mayor’s race.
Turturro supplies the heartbeat for “The Bronx,” giving a performance that zeroes in on Martin’s craftiness and competitive spirit. He’s not a sympathetic character, and there are times when Turturro’s characterization is forced to be at odds with James Solomon and Gordon Greisman’s script. They lean toward Martin as the “good guy” within the triumvirate of Billy, George and Reggie, and there really isn’t one; most viewers, however, will be watching with their memories and casting their decisions through the haze of 30-year-old mental highlight reels.
Then as now, Reggie Jackson is one of the game’s great iconoclasts — a ball of ego that got the job done with the bat and the post-game quotes, he could barely be depended on to scoop up a slow roller in right field. Sunjata, who portrayed a ballplayer in “Take Me Out” on Broadway and is one of the cocky firefighters on FX’s “Rescue Me,” plays overconfidence with aplomb. But the degree of difference between his Franco in the FDNY and his Reggie in pinstripes is minimal; he’s believable, but he’s not the man who basked in the Bronx chant of “Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie.”
Platt is stuck in cartoonish costumes and an even worse hairstyle (Sunjata’s Afro is almost as bad). He bellows, sometimes angry, sometimes pleased. He always wants something changed. Platt is stuck in a two-dimensional script, and he does little more than raise or lower his voice. It’s the most constricting of the three key roles.
Graig Nettles and Fran Healy worked on the show as advisers, and the two of them, as played by Alex Cranmer and Loren Dean, come off as splendid confidants, real team players. Thurman Munson (Erik Jensen), the Yankee captain and catcher, is a bit of sloppy doof from Canton, Ohio; Mickey Rivers (Leonard Robinson) is just trying to secure a loan to get a bet down on a horse (his scrambling of the language is limited to one sound bite); and Yogi Berra appears as the great obedient Yankee.
Use of actual footage of ballgames, New York Daily News front pages and news coverage of politicos and scared women in Queens greatly enhances “The Bronx”; the grainy videos are reminders of garish hair and clothing styles, of the oppressive summer heat and the filth that made New York a rather unattractive city at the time.