“Once Upon a Time in Queens” wants to do for baseball and the 1986 Mets what “The Last Dance” did for the NBA and the Chicago Bulls. Yet while it’s a great deal of fun, ESPN’s four-part “30 for 30” docuseries doesn’t quite scale those heights, offering a nostalgic trip back to that miraculous season but straining a bit to connect the team’s exploits to the New York of it all.
Interviewing a host of former players (several looking great 35 years later) as well as a variety of outside voices, producer-director Nick Davis races through the Mets’ history and underdog status vis-à-vis the Yankees after the Dodgers and Giants moved west.
The project then turns to the Mets’ struggles before executive Frank Cashen began assembling the pieces for the team that won 108 games and the World Series in 1986, with Cashen bluntly telling an interviewer, “I took over a huge mess.”
The Mets’ killer roster included a mix of old and new faces, including a pair of young Black superstars in Dwight “Doc” Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, and two older leaders in Keith Hernandez and the late Gary Carter, with Hernandez still rolling his eyes a bit when recalling the way Carter courted the media with his squeaky-clean image.
Much of the baseball stuff is simply fascinating, from one-time Met Billy Beane calling a young Strawberry “the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen in my life” to Gooden being practically “unhittable” when he started finding his groove.
An equally entertaining part involves the team’s swagger and off-field antics, indulging in drugs and bringing “Mardi Gras” with them wherever they traveled, from groupies in each city to all-night parties that occasionally caused one or another to stagger late into practice.
Lenny Dykstra might be the most colorful of the interviews, peppering his responses with a barrage of obscenities that will be unedited on ESPN (a simulcast on ESPN2 will clean it up).
Still, Davis labors a bit to tie the Mets and their popularity to the socioeconomics of the 1980s. The movie “Wall Street” get name checked, and director Oliver Stone interviewed, while some of the concurrent events cited figured in the team dynamics (racial tensions at the time) and others (the Preppy Murder) not so much.
It’s a conscious decision, with Davis noting in a letter to critics that the Mets “captured the spirit and ethos of the time and city in which they played.” Yet that material makes “Once Upon a Time” feel a bit bloated before reaching the main event, with an incredibly detailed hour devoted to the playoffs and the Mets’ improbable comeback win against the Boston Red Sox during the World Series.
While it’s possible to zap through the earlier parts, the level of minutia regarding that game alone in the fourth chapter should be can’t-miss viewing for any sports fan old enough to remember it.
Beyond the players, the reminiscing includes celebrities like comic Bill Burr, a Red Sox fan whose hilarious ranting about their lineup is a reminder that when it comes to sports, old wounds never really heal. Those interviews also reflect how a championship team could — and to a lesser degree still can — unite a city in unparalleled fashion.
As the Mets were assembled in the ’80s, the team ran a slightly premature ad campaign that said, “The magic is back.” “Once Upon a Time in Queens” doesn’t conjure magic throughout, but like Gooden on the mound, when it’s good, it’s pretty near untouchable.
“Once Upon a Time in Queens” will air Sept. 14-15 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
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