Friday, June 22, 2007

Yankees’ Cast in Place, as Sequel Awaits a Finish

Sports of The Times
June 22, 2007

The Bronx Zoo observed through the impressionable eyes of a teenage bat boy. Such was the original narrative for an eight-part television series on the 1977 Yankees set against the backdrop of New York City in the Summer of Billy, Reggie, George and Sam.

“It was going to be along the lines of the Robert De Niro movie ‘A Bronx Tale,’ ” Ray Negron said after a news conference Wednesday for “The Bronx Is Burning” at the Yogi Berra Museum in Little Falls, N.J.

Instead, Negron’s character, while still in the series, is played by a young actor who doesn’t look much like him, or any other Hispanic-American.

“Blond and blue-eyed,” Negron said, shrugging.

That’s entertainment, but at least he still has what seems to be a lifetime Yankee Stadium pass to observe the modern zoolike machinations. Yesterday’s brought an announcement from Jason Giambi that he will discuss his “own personal history regarding steroids” with the former United States Senator George J. Mitchell, who is investigating steroid use for Major League Baseball. Meanwhile, out in Colorado, the Yankees were swept by the Rockies to fall 10 ½ games behind the Red Sox, 6 ½ out in the wild-card race.

It’s always been something with this team since George Steinbrenner bought it in 1973, the same season Negron was caught writing graffiti — an N and a Y — on an exterior wall at the Stadium by the team’s brash new owner.

As Negron tells it, thanks to Steinbrenner’s motivational brainstorm, he went in one night from police custody to the Yankees clubhouse, given a chance to redeem himself as a bat boy beyond reproach. Thirty-four years later, most spent in Steinbrenner’s employ, he offers a business card that reads: “Special Assistant to George M. Steinbrenner III.”

The De Niro-directed 1993 release “A Bronx Tale,” set in 1960s New York, follows the struggles of a boy caught between the lifestyles and ideologies of his father and the local mob boss. Could Negron’s real-life emotional minefield have been any less daunting, in the middle of three prodigious, warring egos, the protagonists of the ESPN miniseries, which premieres on July 9?

Negron survived, somehow. His gratitude to Steinbrenner is implicit, but under the telephone number on his card is the e-mail screen name billyjax144 — which signifies his loyalty to Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson. And makes Negron, as he said, “Probably the only guy who ever got along with all of them.”

Martin, played hauntingly in “The Bronx Is Burning” by John Turturro, is long gone. Steinbrenner, who spends most of his time in Tampa, mostly exists in the Bronx these days as a fading echo. Many game nights, Jackson, listed on the Yankees’ administrative roster as a special adviser, makes the clubhouse rounds, no longer stirring the drink, only vivid memories.

“The Reggie of today is not the Reggie of 1977,” Negron said. “He’s much more of a diplomat. And he especially knows the perfect things to say to Alex.”

He was referring to Alex Rodriguez, while making the astute generational connection that A-Rod, in many ways, is to today’s Yankees what Jackson was to the 1977 edition.

To begin with, essential power source and lightning rod, the self-styled straw that stirs the tabloid soup, which this season has become almost as rich as it was 30 years ago.

Derek Jeter may still hold the unofficial contemporary moniker made famous by Jackson — Mr. October — but day in, day out, the main event now is A-Rod. And attached to his home runs and myriad headlines are hopes that he will finally do something befitting another miniseries, if not a feature film, something comparable to Reggie’s three-home run barrage in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.

If he gets to the playoffs, that is. Almost to mid-season, these Yankees can only match up to the 1977 team in characters, not character. To wit: the Giambi news — anticipated for days — shouldn’t obscure the Tyler Clippard-quality performance turned in by Roger Clemens yesterday, or the five runs scored by the Yankees in three games at Coors Field.

To date, the cold numbers define them as a .500 team, no matter how hot they recently were and how famous the franchise is for giving filmmakers the championship climaxes they crave.

For living large and winning big, Babe Ruth was immortalized on the big screen. The Lou Gehrig story ended tragically, but not before he said he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris got to play themselves in “Safe at Home” in 1962 and later were celebrated in “61*,” Billy Crystal’s excellent production for HBO.

Will Turturro one day use his estimable range to play Torre, the anti-Martin, in a film that makes the four-time champion Yankees the metaphor for a resurgent New York in the 1990s?

Thinking wishfully out loud, Negron said he believes that the 2007 Yankees will yet find their way to the post-season, and that A-Rod is now just the man to lead them to the promised land, a la Reggie 30 years ago.

Steinbrenner’s silence during the media circus created by public sightings and photographs of Rodriguez with a woman not his wife was, Negron said, the most compelling proof to A-Rod that “he really does have George Steinbrenner’s support.”

That silence and support is probably also rooted in the organizational fear that Rodriguez, given a rough time for anything, could opt out of his contract after the season. That would leave an aging Yankee family and this particular Bronx tale with no future and no proper ending, just a screen that abruptly goes black.


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