The Yankees might be the glamour team, but the Mets are the real soul of baseball in New York City. In Once Upon A Time In Queens, a new four-part documentary from ESPN’s long-running 30 For 30 series, we get a sprawling look at the 1986 Mets’ run to a championship; a boozy, drug-fueled, raucous run full of big personalities and bigger aspirations.
The Gist: There are teams that win championships, and then there are teams that forge legends. The 1986 New York Mets are unquestionably the latter; they won 108 games and prevailed in one of the most memorable World Series of all time, a come-from-behind win against the Red Sox that broke hearts across New England. They had otherworldly players like slugger Darryl Strawberry, fireballing pitcher Dwight Gooden, and future Mets broadcaster and Seinfeld guest star Keith Hernandez. Behind the scenes, they only barely stopped partying to rack up wins, and consumed a staggering amount of drugs and alcohol. This new four-part documentary, debuting over two nights on ESPN and its streaming platforms, takes an in-depth look at the team, interviewing players and coaches, but also a wide range of figures from New York culture.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Any multipart ESPN documentary is necessarily going to be compared to last year’s Chicago Bulls epic The Last Dance. There’s shades of that in Once Upon A Time In Queens, but this is less focused on a singular subject. Perhaps it’s Ken Burns’ Baseball meets Bonfire of the Vanities.
Performance Worth Watching: The film is packed wall-to-wall with interviews and talking-head soundbites from former members of the Mets organization and famous New Yorkers, but some of the best insights are provided by author Jeff Pearlman, whose book The Bad Guys Won is a clear point of reference for the film’s story.
Memorable Dialogue: “In his mind, he was a legend already,” one scout notes upon first meeting a young Lenny Dysktra at a tryout, where the scrawny, scrapper ballplayer introduced himself with a string of profanities. “He played hard like Pete Rose, but Pete Rose didn’t piss you off,” Keith Hernandez recalls about his teammate Gary Carter. “But deep down, he just wanted to win, and that’s all I cared about.”
Sex and Skin: There’s plenty of insinuations of vice, given the subject matter—few, if any, sports teams have ever partied harder than the ‘86 Mets—but it’s all gotta get past ESPN’s standards department, so there’s nothing bawdy.
Our Take: If you’re not old enough to have watched it live as it happened, seeing footage of baseball from the 1980s feels like viewing a broadcast from a different world. The fashions and haircuts are outlandish, the players’ physicality a far cry from the tightly-managed machines of today. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine contemporary professional athletes playing under the influence of even a fraction of what their predecessors did, let alone playing as well as the 1986 Mets did.
What’s not hard, though, is to understand how a team like this captured the imagination of the nation’s largest market. They were swaggering, they were charming, they had star power—and they were really, really good. The Mets’ legend was sealed in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when [spoiler alert], two outs away from losing the championship to long-suffering Boston, they rallied to win the game—and later the Series—with a well-timed assist from Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s creaky knees.
It was a long climb to get to that point from the mediocrity of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, though, and the first episode of Once Upon A Time In Queens is largely devoted to assembling a winning roster; drafting the lanky, sweet-swinging Strawberry and later the flamethrowing Gooden, trading for key parts like Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, and quietly letting go aging franchise legends like Tom Seaver. From there, the story unspools largely as one of a team learning to believe in themselves, whether it’s the younger players struggling with instant stardom, or the veterans trying to lead an uncontrollable set of personalities. You can feel the momentum build, from a near-miss of the playoffs in 1985 to a quickly-accelerating juggernaut the following season.
Much of the screen time is devoted to interviews, and those largely fall into three distinct baskets of varying value. There’s interviews with the players themselves, including nearly all of the still-living key parts; Gooden, Strawberry, Hernandez, Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell and others; these are almost universally worthwhile and entertaining. There’s also interviews with contemporaneous sportswriters, who provide some necessary context for some of the roster machinations and storylines. And then there’s the pop-culture interviews; a motley grab-bag of soundbites from people in the “1980s New York: Miscellaneous Famous” category, which mostly just bog down the pacing with surface-level observations that don’t add much of anything to the viewer’s experience.
This is a recurring issue throughout Once Upon A Time In Queens; rather than sticking to the story of a very good and very entertaining baseball team, there are constant clunky, half-hearted attempts to tie everything into what was happening in the city and pop culture at the time, a sort of New York Reference Bingo. The 1977 blackout, The Warriors and Wall Street, CBGB and hip-hop—there’s a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t have much of anything to do with the 1986 Mets for a documentary purportedly about them.
Where last year’s much-lauded 1990s Chicago Bulls series The Last Dance earned its ten-episode runtime through a bounty of never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage there’s no such special access here; it feels like all the extraneous bits about how the Mets “revived the city” and inspired downtrodden people could’ve been excised to make this a tight two-hour film instead of a four-episode, two-night event.
Those gripes aside, though… it’s still a lot of fun. Yes, this could be edited down, the soundbites from Cyndi Lauper and John McEnroe and other non-baseball figures left on the cutting room floor, all the attempts to make the story bigger than it is dialed back. But it truly might not be possible to make a documentary about this team that’s not enjoyable on some level; the subject matter’s just that fun.
Our Call: STREAM IT. If you’re a baseball fan and you’ve got the time to spare, Once Upon A Time In Queens is a fun, if at-times-unfocused look at an all-time entertaining team.
Scott Hines is an architect, blogger and internet user who lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife, two young children, and a small, loud dog.