Chaos In Yankeeland With ‘Bronx Zoo 90’ Doc Director D.J. Caruso

The director of 'Bronx Zoo 90' shares his insight on the making of the new docuseries that details the crazy 1990 season for the New York Yankees.

While it may seem like the Yankees have always been competitive, going more than 30 years since their last losing record, there is a chaotic prelude to the dynasty years of the Core Four and beyond.

A time that, to paraphrase former Yankees manager Buck Showalter in the freshly released 3-part docuseries Bronx Zoo ‘90: Crime, Chaos, And Baseball, might be best forgotten. But there are lessons to be learned from that messy era and stories that are fascinating, upsetting, and relevant.

In the latest episode of the In The Gap podcast, we go over those stories and the rock-bottom 1990 New York Yankees with Bronx Zoo ‘90 director D.J. Caruso, an experienced filmmaker who has helmed more than 25 features and worked with the likes of Vin Diesel, Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, and Matthew McConaughey. Though, to be fair, none of them brought live cougars onto the set like disgraced former Yankee and current inmate Mel Hall. 

Read down to see some highlights where Caruso talks about the unique perspective of being a Mets fan recounting such a wild time in Yankees history, the moment that may have broken George Steinbrenner, and his affection for Field Of Dreams.

Fun stuff, but the real beef is in the full episode where Caruso and I go back and forth a little on Steinbrenner’s legacy and Field Of Dreams while also talking about Hall Of Famer Dave Winfield’s place in this story, the culture that allowed Hall’s monstrous behavior to go unchecked, and the difference between establishing trust with Hollywood superstars and sometimes tight-lipped baseball players. 

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On the sobering moment that may have changed George Steinbrenner

I think, like most people, when you dive into George, I have a love-hate relationship with him in a weird way. Because he did want to win at all costs, which is always a dangerous thing, but he just wanted to win. He was very vulnerable. George is that part of us that’s just impulsive. We want to just do something, he does it. A cab driver says, “This guy can’t play second base.” George is calling them saying, “Trade the second baseman.” 

He’s just impulsive. He’s that side of us that has all impulse, and I think that impulse is what led him to his downfall with the whole Winfield situation. Think about it. A guy like Howie Spira can get George Steinbrenner on the phone and tell him he has dirt. And you’re so blinded by your impulse that you let this guy into your little world. It was just such a thing.

And then to George, obviously there’s ego, obviously there’s narcissism. The key point in the documentary, when he gets banned from baseball and Dave LaPoint’s on the mound, I think they’re playing the Tigers, and there’s a standing ovation when they (the fans) realize that George’s been kicked out of baseball, at Yankee Stadium. I think that pierced his heart. Because as much as he had messed up and screwed up and done all this stuff, he always wanted the Yankee fans to love him.

On His Favorite Baseball Movie:

I think it’s Field of Dreams. […] Because baseball and life, there’s such a similarity to me between baseball and life, because we start at home and we round the bases, and if you end up at home you’ve made it, you’ve succeeded, and I think the idea of that movie to me, personally, was the thematic element of it. Searching and playing catch with your father and the things that we used to do.

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On The Stories At The Heart Of ‘Bronx Zoo ’90’:

This was 1990. The Yankees were in an incredibly dark time, particularly Chaz’s story, the girl who was with Mel Hall. When I finally talked to her and I realized like, “Wow, she’s doing okay. She’s got a business and a family and she’s a great mom.” I thought, “Wow.” Those two stories that the Yankees stumbled and the dynasty came out on top… Chaz was really in a dark period and she came out on top. To me, the narrative drive seemed really great. So it was about getting into these characters and diving in. 

Learning that Winfield and Steinbrenner were feuding from… George wanted him gone the day that they signed the contract because he felt duped by Winfield’s agent. I didn’t know that that was the 10-year history of this marriage that they had. And they were constantly fighting, never talking to each other, but always using the media to talk to each other. So there are a lot of things in there that I thought were really great for the narrative drive and a strong story. There’s a great story in there. And there’s actually, as bad as it was, there’s a positive… You come out to some light. There’s some positivity to it at the end.

All episodes of ‘Bronx Zoo ‘90’ are streaming now on Peacock