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TV Review: Once Upon a Time in Queens

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An extremely rare television review from me, as I am horrible at sitting down and watching shows. Much of this comes from my deep contempt for the culture of binge watching and other parts of it come from my frustration with the dump of half-baked content that dominates the desire for overloading the world with new shows all the time, though I guess I am glad for the work the actors get. Plus I still like watching and thinking about film as a separate genre.

Anyway, I did make an exception, watching the recent ESPN documentary on the 1986 New York Mets, Once Upon a Time in Queens. It’s worth talking about.

First, there’s probably no team in my lifetime, other than arguably the late 90s-early 00s Yankees, that has so captured the public’s imagination. Some of this is certainly the New York part of it. But these were also, uh, characters. That Yankees dynasty of 20 years ago did not have characters. It was a corporate machine and acted like it. The 86 Mets were full of crazy people doing crazy things. Much of this has been romanticized or ended tragically. The way that Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry destroyed their potential Hall of Fame careers through drugs is just downright sad (though I doubt Strawberry is HOF quality in any case). But between those guys, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Ron Darling, Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson, and of course Lenny Dykstra, it was a team of lunatics and weirdos. And thus fun.

The 4-part documentary starts by laying on the New York pretty thick. The Mets were of course terrible, then won it all in 69, then slowly became terrible again. This is placed as a metaphor for the disaster that was the city in the 70s and early 80s, when the Mets and the city both began rising again. OK, whatever. It’s still somewhat useful because this team was such a national story and so was the rise of New York.

Despite terrible management, the Mets still managed to have fans. Then they hired Frank Cashen as GM and he got full room to remake the team. That he did and quite effectively. Drafting Strawberry and Gooden certainly helped. He made really smart trades, such as moving the mediocre Lee Mazzilli for Ron Darling and then giving up some junk to the Cardinals for Keith Hernandez after Whitey Herzog was done with him for using cocaine. Well, Hernandez has always been a little crazy, but he got it together and provided veteran leadership for what became an improving team with a lot of young talent. In 1984, Cashen brought in Davey Johnson to manage. Johnson had swagger. He also did not care one whit what drugs the players were doing so long as they showed up ready to play. This made him the ultimate players manager and it did work for this team, at least for awhile. Then Cashen traded Hubie Brooks to Montreal to Gary Carter and this was a team ready to rock and roll.

After falling a little short of the playoffs in 85, the Mets became one of the most dominant teams in recent history in 1986, beating the Astros in the thanks to the epic 16 inning NLCS game and then went on to beat the Red Sox in the World Series after John McNamara made the worst managerial move in history by leaving old man Bill Buckner in to play first so that he could be on the field when the Red Sox won. Whoops.

Of course this is all interesting enough, but what makes the documentary work is that most of the players are still alive, still kind of crazy or at least chatty, and they are ready to talk. Strawberry and Gooden are both quite clear and blunt about what they went through, their terrible childhoods, the temptation of drugs, and the mistakes they made. Hernandez is the real star of the show. Now that he’s become a legendary announcer, that’s not surprising, but what was more surprising is that he could be pretty self-lacerating and reflective too (plus his famous cat kept showing up). It was also interesting how all these years later, it’s still clear how much Hernandez could not stand Gary Carter. Of course lots of people felt that way–he was a showboat, a rough player, an evangelical Christian in the middle of a bunch of partiers, a media hog, and one hell of a great catcher. At best Hernandez came to terms with having him on the team, but still could not help but diss him right and left. Carter’s wife stood in for his perspective since he was sadly lost with cancer several years ago. Ron Darling is naturally there too, but the real surprise star of this is Bobby Ojeda, who was quite reflective and insightful. Sid Fernandez and Roger McDowell were only there in small chunks. Mookie Wilson is as charismatic and fun as ever. Ray Knight talked about how much the team (and him personally) liked to get into fights on the field with the other team. Wally Backman was forthright about the crazy parties. And then….there’s Lenny Dykstra.

I still remember that ridiculous 2008 Dykstra profile in The New Yorker, written by Ben McGrath who should have this blazed on his gravestone, that was a fawning lapdance about what a great financial advisor the former baseball player was. I was reading this while getting my oil changed when I lived in Texas and just being amazed at how ridiculous this was. Then shortly after, Dykstra went to prison for fraud. Shocking, I know. The interviews with Dykstra are truly amazing. He is a barely literate fool who can hardly make himself understood between his mumbling and his swearing. There’s an occasional interesting insight here (when the Mets traded for Kevin McReynolds, he noted that the talented guy’s problem is that he didn’t like baseball), but mostly it’s just a spectacle to see. Listening to Dykstra attempt to explain the meaning of the word “surreal” is just amazing. Definitely the guy I want to give my money too!

I don’t know why they did not interview Tim Teufel, Jesse Orosco, Danny Santana (who is barely mentioned; I know he wasn’t that good but he was still the starting shorstop) or Howard Johnson. Maybe some guys didn’t want to be interviewed. More useful were the interviews with Kevin Mitchell, which really got into the racism at the heart of the 80s and the entire enterprise the Mets built. Mitchell grew up rough and tumble in San Diego. So everyone saw him in New York as a gangster and a bad influence on Gooden and Strawberry, including Cashen. This was ridiculous. Mitchell was not that kind of guy, however he grew up. As Dykstra pointed out, Mitchell didn’t even drink, making him very unusual for that team. After the season, Cashen traded him to the Padres to get this supposedly negative influence away from his other Black stars. Yeah……clearly not the problem. And then Mitchell went on to be the MVP in 1989, just as the Mets started their decline. I did think the series could have done more on race. George Foster was infamously released from the team when he said that he was losing his job because the Mets wanted to promote more whites. Well, Foster was also finished. But he probably wasn’t wrong and a few commenters, including Chuck D, noted this.

Cashen stupidly broke up the team too soon after. Johnson wasn’t the manager for the long haul. No one could control some of these players, including themselves. Maybe they weren’t set up for long-term success no matter what. The times and the specific players were just a recipe for too much, too soon. It was also something just how un-Latino this team was. That would be unthinkable now. Basically, it was Santana and Orosco (who is clearly indigenous Mexican but also was born in California). Even Hernandez is Spanish, not Mexican. This would never happen today. Just a different and more global game.

But it was a fun team and it was a fun documentary. Was glad I watched it. With days between each episode so I could think and talk about it before going on to the next one, unlike the binge watching ridiculousness that flattens everything without the time to contemplate it.

Speaking of documentaries, I hope some of you enjoyed the William Randolph Hearst American Experience documentary I was on the last couple of nights. I was surprised they let some of my pretty harsh assessments of the man through!

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