In watching ESPN’s new documentary “Yankees-Dodgers: An Uncivil War”, the main takeaway is that the storied rivalry just isn’t the same anymore.
Directed by documentary veteran Fritz Weaver, the old Brooklyn-New York blood feud wasn’t just regional. The Dodgers lived in Brooklyn and were part of the borough’s blue-collar neighborhood culture. The Yankees, meanwhile, were the “upper class” who lived uptown and out of the city.
My, how things have changed. Through the lens of the self-indulgent 1970s, we learn how the Yankees’ bad-boy image matched the tumult in the Bronx at the time. On the West Coast, the Dodgers’ All-American/Hollywood image, led by Steve Garvey, wasn’t all it seemed, either. Somewhere in the middle, both teams played each other in the 1977 and 1978 World Series.
The quick-paced film is, at its core, a love letter to celebrity, showmanship, and self-love. It adds a dash of sports to the mix, too.
The Martin/Lasorda dichotomy. You can’t tell this story without Billy Martin and Tommy Lasorda, two of baseball history’s greatest literal characters. The fiery Martin openly feuded with star Reggie Jackson and owner George Steinbrenner as they courted the spotlight. He wasn’t at all afraid of managing his team and also criticizing them in the press.
The affable Lasorda, meanwhile, was intense but also the opposite. He cursed like a sailor and spoke his mind. Yet, he also showed a gentler side and sought to end slumps by having comedian Don Rickles show up in the clubhouse and just go to town.
One could almost say that Martin’s clenched-jaw style led to the tight ships of former Yankees skipper Joe Girardi. Fast forward to today, and has Aaron Boone drawn his more communicative and laid-back style from Lasorda?
The celebrity athlete. A big piece of “An Uncivil War” is Reggie Jackson signing a then-record contract with the Yankees in 1977. This was controversial not just for the money flowing into newly established free agency, but because Jackson was already outspoken. His “I’m the straw that stirs the drink” comment hurt the team dynamic no matter how anyone spins it.
On the Dodgers’ side, there was Steve “Mr. Clean” Garvey. Telegenic, articulate, and married to the pretty blonde, he embodied Hollywood and did more than his fair share of TV commercials. Not to be outdone, Jackson had his famous chocolate bar, the Reggie Bar.
Even more interesting is Martin and Lasorda’s place in this celebrity culture. Martin played in the shadow of Mickey Mantle and craved the spotlight while also kind of resenting it. Lasorda, on the other hand, was a career minor leaguer with a handful of MLB games who was just happy to be where he was.
It just goes to show that celebrity comes in various forms and does different things to people.
Will the rivalry live on? Starting next season, all MLB teams will play each other over the course of a season. This means that every year, we get the original Subway Series: Yankees vs. Dodgers. Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium. Maybe some vintage uniforms will make an appearance, too.
And yet, it just won’t be the same. Once the working class local team, the Dodgers have gone full Los Angeles. Their payroll has been among the highest in baseball for over a decade, much like the once-maligned “upper class” Yankees. The Mets have since filled the have-not void in New York and feud with their Bronx counterparts accordingly.
Will seeing the Dodgers annually bring back the old New York feud and, channeling Ace Frehley, get it back in a New York groove? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, “Yankees-Dodgers: An Uncivil War” is a joyful, entertaining reminder of a rivalry that once was, and what maybe still could someday be.
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