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Yankees' power surge heats up Bronx summer

Exceptionally cast, well-acted and loaded with inside-baseball gossip, ESPN's first miniseries, "The Bronx is Burning," comes close to hitting a home run.

It tries to complete an extremely difficult triple play -- juxtaposing the volatile, emotionally uplifting 1977 championship season of the New York Yankees, the murder spree of the so-called "Son of Sam" that was frightening the New York metropolitan area, and a mayoral election campaign.

Adapted from Jonathan Mahler's best seller, the series premieres at 10 p.m. Monday, a night before the Major League All-Star game. Subsequent weekly episodes will be carried at 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Aug. 28.

In the first three episodes made available for review, the baseball aspects of the miniseries play much better than the efforts of New York City's finest to apprehend the serial killer.

The miniseries has several Buffalo angles to add to the interest already here among the large contingent of Yankee fans in the area. The series was cast by Buffalo native Billy Hopkins and his associates, and two character actors from Buffalo, Joe Grifasi and Louis Mustillo, have significant, albeit minor roles.

Grifasi manages to avoid caricature as Yogi Berra, the Yankee great who is Manager Billy Martin's right-hand man. Mustillo plays a sportswriter, Maury Allen, who has the ear of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner.

But make no mistake: This is John Turturro's movie. Best known for quirky roles in feature films, Turturro is mesmerizing as Martin, the volatile Yankee manager who was often at odds with Steinbrenner and the flamboyant star player, Reggie Jackson, the so-called Boss forced on him.

The miniseries is worth the price of admission just to see Turturro's ability to get inside Martin's skin as he fights with Steinbrenner, Jackson and his own demons.

But there isn't a weak hitter in the lineup. Oliver Platt is a strong Steinbrenner, who constantly is trying to remind Martin who's the boss and is in over his head in baseball decisions.

And Daniel Sunjata ("Rescue Me") is equally powerful as Jackson, a charismatic, egomaniac who is impressed by his own intelligence and outsmarts himself often in battles with Martin and Yankee captain Thurman Munson (Eric Jensen).

In his first spring training with the Yankees, Jackson foolishly told a magazine writer that he was "the straw that stirs the drink" and belittled Munson. It drove a wedge between the new charismatic Yankee and the old traditional Yankee that threatened team harmony.

With former Yankee backup catcher Fran Healy, former Yankee third base great Graig Nettles and a couple of New York sportswriters as advisers, "Bronx" feels authentic in several scenes. They include one in which Healy (Loren Dean) brokers a dinner in which Jackson and Munson try to reach an accommodation with each other and another in which Steinbrenner is initially talked out of firing Martin by Jackson, Munson and his calm general manager, Gabe Paul (Kevin Conway). Additionally, the actors don't look out of place in the baseball scenes.

The miniseries deftly juxtaposes real baseball footage and real footage of New Yorkers frightened by the Son of Sam with the fictional footage of events.

Compared to the baseball scenes, the subplot that deals with the capture of the serial killer is as routine as a double play started by a shortstop.

Dan Lauria, who recently played Studio Arena, and Nestor Serrano are among the cops trying to catch the criminal who has captured the front pages of New York tabloids while the Yankees soap opera is dominating the back sports pages.

Michael Rispoli also does standout work as Jimmy Breslin, the New York star journalist who is ahead of everyone on the "Son of Sam" story. Breslin also is a consultant on the film.

Presumably, the twin story lines and the mayor's race will eventually meet near the end. But after three of the eight episodes made available for review, they play like they belong in separate films.

An early story line about Martin's philandering and home life also quickly is tossed aside, making one wonder if it will ever become an issue again.
But aside from those relatively minor criticisms, "The Bronx is Burning" stirs memories and scores often with a terrific insider view of a few of the sport's greatest and most interesting characters.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

***

Television review

Bronx is Burning

3 and a half stars (out of four)

10 p.m. series premier Monday, ESPN

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