‘Bronx Zoo 90’: DJ Caruso And Joel Sherman On Why The 1990 Yankees Were Such A Crazy, Awful Team — And Why It’s A Redemption Story

My New York Yankees fandom dates back to 1979, when I went to my first game with my baseball team during the first and only year I was in Little League. They had just come off two championships in a row, engineered by the team’s blustery and outrageous owner, George Steinbrenner.

Little did I know, however, what was in store for me and other Yankees fans starting that year through the 1980s: The team’s captain, Thurman Munson, died during the 1979 season in a plane crash, a playoff loss in 1980 and a World Series loss in ’81, then eight years of decent teams that never made the playoffs, mainly due to lack of pitching. Steinbrenner churned through managers (including Billy Martin three times in that decade alone) and general managers and traded away prospects that later became superstars for has-been veterans (just ask Frank Costanza how that felt). Then 1990 happened.

“I certainly am around a lot of Yankee fans of a certain age who think it’s their divine right to play for championships every year,” says Joel Sherman, the New York Post baseball columnist who was a Yankees beat reporter that year; a series of columns he wrote in 2020 about that season are the basis for director DJ Caruso’s new Peacock docuseries Bronx Zoo ’90: Crime, Chaos And Baseball. “I think a lot of people will be curious to watch the documentary as a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. It can be rock bottom, and it was rock bottom.” (Note: Decider is a division of the New York Post Digital Network.)

“Rock bottom” might be an understatement. The Yankees lost 95 games, their worst record since the nineteen-teens. One superstar, Dave Winfield, finally got traded after a decade of bitter disputes with Steinbrenner. The other superstar, Don Mattingly, was injured for most of the year. Pitcher Andy Hawkins threw a no-hitter and the team still lost the game. And Steinbrenner himself got suspended from baseball for his dealings with a small-time hood named Howie Spira, all in an attempt to get dirt on Winfield. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of crazy that was the 1990 Yankees, as Caruso documents in the three-part series.

“A lot of the stuff that happened [in the ’80s] all started to reach this plateau,” Caruso told DECIDER about the 1990 season. “The Winfield-Steinbrenner thing was at its very, very end and, with lawsuits and everything and was about to get settled, and baseball was doing their investigation. So you knew in July of that year, [then-commissioner] Fay Vincent was going to come out with the answer to all this stuff. So when when Winfield went, then Deion Sanders comes in, and they put Deion in the outfield, so you have the aspect of a guy who’s not ready to play in the Major Leagues. Then ultimately, you have the Mel Hall situation.”

Ah, yes, Mel Hall. He is the centerpiece of Caruso’s series, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he brought two cougars — actual big cats — into the Yankee clubhouse before one game; they proceeded to urinate on the carpet. The then 29-year-old outfielder also openly dated 15-year-old Chastity Easterly, and moved in with her family. He even went to the prom with her; the picture of the two of them in full prom regalia appeared in the team’s yearbook that year. Caruso interviewed both Hall and Easterly for the docuseries, with Hall doing his interview from the Texas state penitentiary where he’s serving a 45-year sentence for the sexual assault of a minor in 1999.

“With Winfield gone and Mattingly hurt, he took over the lead of that dugout,” says Caruso about why Hall was such a pivotal character in the docuseries. “He sort of took over the lead and like, is this the guy you really want to get in the lead? And I thought, he’s narcissistic… Here’s a guy who had all these exotic sports cars that he never paid for. So he’s always just selfishly kind of living on the edge.” Caruso used the term “cancer in that dugout” to describe Hall, which is saying something, given the chaos around the team at the time.

While people in the clubhouse may have looked a little askance at Hall bringing a teenager around to games, it’s not like it was on the beat reporters’ radar back then, according to Sherman. “That the Yankees would put that into the media guide, it was, you know, a different age. We didn’t understand the implications, certainly the organization didn’t, by putting it in there. And Mel was so outrageous that to like, pinpoint that which, in a post #MeToo world, for example, we would go, ‘Well, his career is over now,’… To me, it’s like when somebody says, ‘Oh, you know how I would have handled steroids in 1990?’ And I’m like, ‘You have a lot more information about steroids in 2024 than I had in 1994.’”

As Caruso mentioned, the other story that loomed large over the 1990 season was the investigation into Steinbrenner’s dealings with Spira. When Steinbrenner accepted a lifetime ban from the game (he was reinstated in 1992), the crowd at the Yankee game that night gave a standing ovation when the news passed through the stadium via the radios some fans listened to.

It’s certainly a far cry from the image of Steinbrenner fans had during the dynasty years, when the team won five championships between 1996 and 2009, including three in a row between 1998-2000 (they haven’t had a losing season since 1992).

“The YES network, and the people who oversee it have done a lot of work to turn George into an eccentric kooky uncle. when he was not an eccentric kooky uncle; he was mean spirited, he was a puppeteer, he was fighting to get onto the back page for himself in particular and for his team in general,” says Sherman. “He was impetuous, and it influenced everything.

“I covered the team when free agents used the Yankees to bid themselves up with no plan whatsoever to sign with them,” Sherman continues. “Who wanted to play there when the owner might target you, like he did to Dave Winfield and others?” This led to the team signing third-tier free agents like Pascual Perez, a pitcher with a sketchy history who had to be coaxed out of the Dominican Republic to attend spring training. Steinbrenner then paraded Perez out in front of Sherman and the other beat writers for a nighttime throwing session as soon as he arrived, which might have been a factor in a shoulder injury that limited him to just three regular-season starts. “It was it was the worst show on on Earth, and nobody wanted to be part of it,” says Sherman.

Caruso interviewed a number of beat reporters from that era, including current Yankees TV play-by-player Michael Kay and radio analyst Suzyn Waldman, as well as players like Mattingly, second baseman Steve Sax, pitcher Dave LaPoint, catcher Jim Leyritz, and Kevin Maas, a rookie sensation who hit a bushel of home runs after he replaced the injured Mattingly at first base late in the season. He also spoke to current Yankee general manager Brian Cashman, who was a young intern for the team in 1990.

The beat reporter angle is important, because they had access to the players, coaches, the manager and even Steinbrenner that was much more open than the highly-structured access pro sports teams now provide to journalists.

“The clubhouse was open for like three-and-a-half hours [before the game], and there were no off-limits areas,” says Sherman. “Back then the players were in the main clubhouse; that’s where they ate, that’s where they dressed for the game, that’s where they dress afterwards to leave. They couldn’t run away from you. There was no hiding. I feel like we knew the players and they knew us. For the [reporters] that were there on the first day of spring training, like mid February, and then go the whole way with the team, even the players who don’t love you, they recognize that you’re running the race with them.”

Photo: Peacock

The toughest interview to get, according to Caruso, was Easterly, who publicly spoke about her relationship with Hall for the first time in the docuseries. “I think Chas was very difficult to convince and ever since she’s now spoken to us, she’s gone off and doing podcasts and she’s dealing with women [who were victims of] abuse. It was liberating for her; once she decided that she can talk and share the story that it was easier for her to tell people. Her daughters are proud of her, everyone’s proud of her because of everything that she’s doing.”

Hall, on the other hand was relatively easy to get, and as Caruso says, not all that remorseful. “I thought he’d be a man who found God and remorse. It was just really interesting how I didn’t see any of that. It was sort of heartbreaking that he still feels like he’s a victim. I don’t know if he really believes it. I don’t know. But it was really sad.”

Caruso also spoke to Spira, who had recordings of phone calls between him and Steinbrenner where Spira asks for the money he claimed the owner owed him for information on Winfield; Steinbrenner eventually paid him $40,000 to make him go away, which is what got The Boss in trouble with Vincent. “He was like digging up a mobster,” says Caruso. “He did want to talk for sure, but was kind of, ‘What’s in it for me?’ He’s sort of a bitter guy and full of amazing stories. ” How much of what Spira told him did he believe? “Maybe 15% of what Howie says is the truth. He did go see Steinbrenner and there might have been a hooker [sent by Steinbrenner] who knocked on his door. A lot of it’s become Howie’s perception of what happened. And he makes himself believe that.”

Ultimately, though, Bronx Zoo ’90 is a redemption story to Caruso. Right before Steinbrenner started his suspension, he named Gene Michael as the team’s general manager, who built the team without The Boss’ interference; he wanted players with solid off-field character who also got on base a lot on the field, way before Billy Beane was cited in Moneyball for using on-base percentage as a metric for choosing players. Players who were instrumental to the late ’90s dynasty, like Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera and other “Core Four” members Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were being developed in the low minors. And the team’s bad early ’90s records put them in position to draft a skinny shortstop named Derek Jeter.

“I think the message is, no matter how bad things get, you can move on,” says Caruso. “Even Steinbrenner changed. He kind of realized what was going on and he made a conscious effort to become lighter, to make fun of himself. So I think the message is, you can change, you can come out of these things. You can come out of these things stronger and better if you can endure the suffering, and 1990 was certainly full of suffering.”

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.


Leave a Reply