'Bronx Zoo '90' is a cougar-filled Yankees reminder that things could always be worse

What a disaster! Also, what a triumph!
1990 Don Mattingly
1990 Don Mattingly / Steve Crandall/GettyImages

Once upon a time, the Yankees' worst fate was far more ghastly than "haven't won a World Series in 14 years" (as bad as that reality currently seems).

Not only were the 1990 Yankees mired at the bottom of baseball's barrel, but they were coming off a decade where they captured the most wins in baseball (15 more than the Detroit Tigers), but only participated in one postseason (1981, split in twain by the strike). There was immense pressure on George Steinbrenner to deliver a winner, but there was also less than no interest on the part of most high-profile free agents in helping him solve his problem.

That can partially be blamed on Steinbrenner's reaction to the signing of Dave Winfield in 1980. Winfield was one of the game's preeminent five-tool sluggers. He also negotiated a "cost of living" raise under Steinbrenner's nose, maxing out his contract $8 million higher than The Boss anticipated. This created immediate resentment on the part of Steinbrenner, leading to a decade-long attempt to disparage Winfield at every cost and follow any dirty lead he was presented with, no matter how seedy the source.

That's where the year 1990 found the Yankees organization -- led by a consummate Captain in Don Mattingly, a star who wanted out (but didn't want to help Steinbrenner) in Winfield, and a whole bunch of spare parts, many of whom were even less valuable off the field than they were on it. That's where Peacock's new docu-series "Bronx Zoo '90: Crime, Chaos and Baseball' drops the viewer off, as director DJ Caruso attempts to not only simmer in the Yankees' at their lowest low, but chart a path to inexplicable contention just three years later (and a dynasty within six seasons).

1990 Yankees Documentary 'Bronx Zoo '90' chronicles George Steinbrenner's fall

Most of that foundation of '90s glory didn't arrive until Stick Michael was put in charge while Steinbrenner was, uh, suspended for chasing Winfield dirt and consorting with Howie Spira, a clouded figure who opens up to Caruso's storytelling and fully participates in the documentary (whether you believe his fanciful claims or not).

When asked whether he was nervous about pricking a hole in Steinbrenner's rehabilitated legacy for a generation of viewers who grew up shrouded only in glory, Caruso pivoted, mentioning that the research process evoked different feelings within him than you might expect.

"In doing this, when you kind of dive in, I fell in love with George Steinbrenner. Even though he made all these mistakes, he was such a fascinating character," Caruso expressed. "For those who were born in the '90s, you might remember the George Steinbrenner who rehabilitated his image, who was on 'Seinfeld,' who hosted 'Saturday Night Live'. But I think the one thing about George is that he's that side of us that's all passion. Knee-jerk decisions. Impulsive. A cab driver would tell him something, and he'd say, 'Great, I'll get rid of that guy'."

In less than six months of time covered by the documentary, Yankee fans are shown cheering Steinbrenner's ouster, then excitedly welcoming him back. Perhaps more of us than expected have always been like Caruso than -- at least, subconsciously.

While numerous former players, witness writers and figureheads were more than willing to comment on the dysfunction (which soon became criminally tinged), notably absent were any members of the Steinbrenner family, as well as the centerpiece of the case that consumed Steinbrenner and sent him to the showers, Winfield. Caruso tried to coerce Winfield to speak but, in the end, this chapter of his life (and a decade in New York that was tainted from the start) remains too painful to touch.

"I was pleasantly surprised (by how much participation we got from former players). This is a moment in Yankee history the YES Network isn't gonna be highlighting. It's sort of like this blip in Yankee history that's ... gone," Caruso clarified.

"And every single ex-player, and some of the executives we interviewed, referred to him as Mr. Steinbrenner. It shows the reverence they still have for him, even if they were feuding with him at the time."

The chaos and destruction of 1990 threatened to undo the game's preeminent franchise. Pettiness like Pascual Perez's arrival in free agency, followed by a shoulder injury that may or may not have been caused by Steinbrenner's hubris, is one thing. Outfielder Mel Hall, known mostly for bullying a young Bernie Williams relentlessly (and, yes, bringing two live cougars into the locker room), represents quite another. He's interviewed in the film from prison, discussing his love affair with an underaged girl that took place during the season, tacitly accepted at the time, but now seen as a horrifying harbinger of future crimes. This film shows Yankee malfeasance that occasionally borders on ludicrous, but often trips into far darker territory than on-field lapses.

Steinbrenner, who easily could've been the chief villain in this tale of woe, is afforded the redemption that eventually came in the late '90s over the course of three episodes, credited with knowing exactly where to pivot after his expulsion (and after the tragic death of Billy Martin prevented him from backsliding into familiarity once again). Caruso's version of the 1990 (and 1991-1995) Yankees pulls no punches, allowing players to relive ghastly bites they may have rather not touched, while still displaying reverance for an organization that's crawled out of far darker droughts than this before.

For those who only lived through the triumph, it's certainly worth assessing every bit of the tragedy.