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.”
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.
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.
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.