One of the dumbest type of sports book is the “extraordinary season” type. This is the type that covers a single season in which team X did better than anyone ever expected, rallied the fan base, and soared above and beyond their playing ability. With the exception of The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith’s outstanding chronicle of the 1991 Chicago Bulls championship run, these are terrible fluff books. Most are poorly written, lacking in any particular insight that hasn’t already been beaten to death by beat writers, and not objective. Many are even about teams whose extraordinary season was merely ordinary. I’m thinking of the 2001 New England Patriots here – I attempted to read an account of that particular season once, and it insulted my intelligence so badly, I couldn’t even make it through the first chapter. And I swear I’m going to drop-kick the next person who says Adam Vinatieri’s Super Bowl-winning kick against the Rams was the greatest moment in sports history.
The Bronx Zoo is fluff. But it’s entertaining fluff. What makes it different is that the scribe in this case was actually a member of the team he was writing about, and not just some beat writer looking to make a quick buck. The Bronx Zoo chronicles the 1978 New York Yankees, and the headline name on the cover is 1977 Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle. Though Lyle walked away from the 1977 season with the prestigious honor, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner still picked up closer Goose Gossage for the 1978 season and put Sparky on the back burner. So Lyle, with the help of legendary baseball writer Peter Golenbock, enjoys a role as the team’s note-taker.
Lyle explains his way through The Bronx Zoo speaking the gruff, tough language of a ballplayer who’s been around the block. He tells you bluntly who’s been biting the big one, who’s been hot, and what his opinion on all of it is. Though he often doesn’t seem to be able to make up his mind about a lot of it, the layout of the book makes that forgivable. The Bronx Zoo is a day-by-day, blow-by-blow journal of the season, and Sparky’s opinions change from day to day, depending on what he sees.
The Bronx Zoo isn’t nearly as funny as purists make it out to be, and it doesn’t contain any information which would be a big secret nowadays. Maybe it was a shocker back then, but with the truth about athletes making headlines just as often as their spectacular statistics, nothing you wouldn’t already count on is in this book. However, we do get to see Sparky’s point of view of several key moments from the 1978 season, including the ever-famous Boston Massacre in which the Yankees, needing four games to catch up to the first-place Red Sox in the standings, sweep a four-game series in Fenway by a very telling high score.
Sparky is at his best when giving his opinions about the game and his teammates. Among his opinions are that Reggie Jackson has too big of a head, that Billy Williams was a good manager even when the two didn’t get along (which was often enough), and that the Red Sox were a far better team than the Los Angeles Dodgers, whom the Yankees beat in the World Series that season. Through most of the book, Sparky is in a hunt to get a better contract, and his tone whenever he brings up the subject is slightly frustrated. His attitude toward George Steinbrenner is equally as frustrated, even though he seems to have some respect for the man Yankee fans affectionately refer to as The Boss.
There’s one big problem with The Bronx Zoo, however: Sparky spends so much time veering off course, he often forgets to tell you the results of what’s going on in games. This saves us the difficulty of boring play-by-play game calls, but it also leaves us little with which to figure out just how good the team is doing. Sparky often complains about players who aren’t doing well, including himself. Yet he says little of the team’s record and so we’re left thinking the Yankees are doing worse than they actually are. This could have been better handled, but there’s so much pointless information taking the place of the season that you sometimes wonder if the whole point was what Steinbrenner said it was: For Sparky to find a mass audience to grieve to. Also, the 1978 Yankees come off as a bunch of clowns who play baseball. While that does make them entertaining and spirited, they really don’t come off as the fiery party family that was the 1986 New York Mets. The 1978 Yankees are almost bland compared to their 1986 crosstown rivals. Maybe I was just expecting more from a book by a relief pitcher about a team known as a circus sideshow, but if the 1978 Yankees and the 1986 Mets were to have at each other in a no-holds-barred brawl, Vegas picks the Mets.
Sparky’s writing style is pure baseball lingo and tough talk. It gives you the impression that he lives hard, though he does make references to a wife and kids. He also admits staying out extremely late. The book is filled with casual curses which didn’t need to be there, even though they’re all very much in Sparky’s spirit.
I’m placing a recommended stamp on The Bronx Zoo, though it certainly isn’t essential. It’s a read-once type of baseball book, kind of like Faithful. Many parts of it could have been better handled, and like with Faithful, there’s too much filler. But when all is said and done, it really is a fun romp through one of the greatest circus baseball sideshows in recent baseball history. Read it, enjoy it, but then rush to check out The Bad Guys Won, a piece of entertaining fluff by Jeff Pearlman about the 1986 Mets. That’s a genuinely good piece of fluff.
This review will be appearing on the baseball literature blog Lit Bases.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
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The acclaimed relief pitcher shares his frequently bitter memories of the Yankees' championship 1978 season, one marred by various feuds and much infighting, alternating with irreverent anecdotes about his eccentric superstar teammates, managers, and owners. Reprint.