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The year New York really got Yanked

A volatile '77 team amid Son of Sam turmoil: ESPN burns the sports drama template.

July 01, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Bristol, Conn. — THE most surefire story line for a sports movie is Triumph Over Adversity, in which all problems are solved as the Big Game is won or the miracle finish achieved, as in "Rudy," "Remember the Titans" or "Cinderella Man."

But ESPN's eight-part "The Bronx Is Burning" offers a variation on the theme as it looks back on the 1977 New York Yankees. It's a Triumph Over Ego saga. Or maybe Triumph of Ego. For like the best sports stories, this one understands that the most intriguing element is not the action on the field but the crazy humans who play out their passions there. Many of us know the destiny of that Yankees team of 30 years ago: Reggie Jackson will hammer out three home runs on three Dodgers pitches in the sixth game of the World Series to give George Steinbrenner his first title as Yankees owner and Billy Martin his only ring as manager of the boys in pinstripes.

But we also know that there would not be happy endings in the long run for at least two of those men whose first names alone identified them -- Billy was doomed to a humiliating pattern of firings, rehirings and drinking, then a fatal crash in 1989, and George was doomed to be ... well, George, the owner with an insatiable need to win, so the last title was never enough.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Yankees: A caption with a photograph from the coming ESPN series "The Bronx Is Burning" in Sunday Calendar said it showed Daniel Sunjata portraying player Reggie Jackson. It was Bill Forchion, playing coach Elston Howard. Also, the caption incorrectly said the Yankees were celebrating their 1977 World Series victory. It showed a scene portraying the team celebrating the winning of the American League pennant.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Yankees: A caption with a photograph from the coming ESPN series "The Bronx Is Burning" in Calendar on July 1 said it showed Daniel Sunjata portraying player Reggie Jackson. It was Bill Forchion, playing coach Elston Howard. Also, the caption incorrectly said the Yankees were celebrating their 1977 World Series victory. It showed a scene portraying the team celebrating their winning the American League pennant.

As they say, though, the pleasure is in the journey -- in this case, how these egos work one another, as when Steinbrenner (played by Oliver Platt) tries to lure free agent Jackson (Daniel Sunjata) to New York during a lunch at the fancy restaurant 21.

"I thought it would be a little ritzier," Jackson says. "Looks like a place in [San Francisco's] North Beach."

"Let me tell you something, my friend," replies the shipbuilder-turned-team owner. "... Play for me here, the sky's your limit, my friend.... What do you want more than anything?"

"A Rolls, George. A Rolls-Royce Corniche."

"Well, I guess you'll have to have one, won't you?"

Soon after, a cab pulls up and the driver shouts, "Yo, Reggie, we need you in New York!"

Watching the scene, viewers may miss that it's current Yankee Jason Giambi doing a cameo as the cabby whose recruitment pitch prompts a skeptical Jackson to ask Steinbrenner, "You payin' these people?"

The ESPN project, which premieres July 9 and will run over eight weeks, is based on Jonathan Mahler's book "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning" and other sources documenting the Yanks' comically (in retrospect) chaotic championship season, set against the not-so-comic chaos in the city, the worst being not the garbage and graffiti but a serial killer on the loose, the "Son of Sam."

As the body count rises, the city can turn to the soap opera of Steinbrenner trying to tell Martin (John Turturro) what batting order to set -- in particular that he bat Jackson fourth, the prestigious "cleanup" spot usually reserved for a team's most dangerous hitter. Martin bristles at the owner's meddling, then makes his counterpoint by putting players' names on slips of paper, sticking them in a hat and inviting Jackson to pull one at a time.

"What exactly am I doin' here, skip?"

"You're pickin' the battin' order. Keep goin'."

"... You're actually going to go with this?"

"I'm a baseball genius. Haven't you heard?"

The punch line is that the team indeed starts winning then. But the hot streak that makes the season does not begin until Martin gives in and does bat Jackson in his accustomed cleanup spot -- on the day police arrest David Berkowitz, the pudgy killer who was having conversations with the dog of his neighbor, Sam Carr.

Hot property

SUCH real-life touches were what prompted ESPN to acquire the rights to "The Bronx Is Burning," according to Ron Semiao, who earned genius status himself, at least within the network, when he saw the market possibilities of extreme sports such as skateboarding and created the "X Games." Semiao now serves as senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment, which has produced a succession of scripted sports films and series, including "A Season on the Brink" and "The Junction Boys," about two hard-nosed college coaches -- basketball's Bob Knight and football's Paul "Bear" Bryant -- and "Ruffian," about the filly who had to be destroyed after her match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, a reminder of another sports film formula, the Tear Jerker, exemplified by such stories as "Pride of the Yankees," "Bang the Drum Slowly" and "Brian's Song."

Though these projects work because of their off-field dynamics, their soap operas, ESPN executives believe that one of their dramatic re-creations -- 2005's "Code Breakers," about a cheating scandal that devastated the West Point football team -- failed to resonate with viewers because it strayed too far from sports. It might just as easily have been about the debate team.

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