Once Upon a Time in Queens

ESPN's new documentary on the 1986 Mets features some mind-blowing, behind-the-scenes footage.


As a TV critic with a national audience, I have to resist the temptation to dwell on programming that seems to have been created just for me. As someone who grew up in Northern New Jersey just one town away from David Chase, it always seemed “The Sopranos” was about people I knew or might have known, terrifying and exaggerated versions of neighbors and classmates.

The show’s ability to capture a certain northern New Jersey/Southern Italian Catholic culture, cuisine, humor and language was startling. So, naturally, I thought the show was the greatest TV series ever made. At the same time, I realized I might have been biased by my upbringing.

I bring this up, not to praise “The Sopranos” again, but to preface my reaction to an epic, four-hour (!) “30 for 30” (7 p.m. and 9 p.m., ESPN) airing tonight and tomorrow night. “Once Upon a Time in Queens” surveys the legend of the 1986 Mets and the New Yorkers of that period who embraced that team. My first quibble is the title. Instead of riffing on Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti Western “Once Upon a Time in the West,” why not go right for George Steven’s 1965 biblical epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told”?

Filled with interviews with members of the team, including Keith Hernandez, Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson and Darryl Strawberry, the film features a chorus of observations from fans and experts. And it captures and celebrates the particular enigma of Mets fandom.

For all of its setbacks, from 9/11 to COVID, New York remains America’s most swaggering, overconfident and self-absorbed metropolis. People in smaller cities, small towns and rural areas think New Yorkers look down on them. They’re wrong. New Yorkers don’t think about them at all.

Given that, it’s hard to think of any New Yorkers as underdogs. But then you have to consider people who never became Yankees fans. To be a Mets fan does not require a loathing for the Yankees or contempt for its followers. But it helps. Because while Yankee fans expect a World Series ring every year, Mets fans are happy for one every few decades.

Hence a four-hour history of a team from 35 years back. So, “Once” is both a sports story, a cultural time-capsule and a grainy, low-resolution VHS tape trip back to a lost era. And a look at a time too defined by cocaine and all of the nervous energy and destruction that substance represented.

Too many on that team saw their careers and lives unraveled by drugs. At the same time, the catalyst for the success of this coked-up roster was Gary Carter, a dimpled boy-next-door nicknamed “The Kid,” a self-professed Christian who underscored his squeaky-clean image by appearing in soap commercials. Ivory was the only white substance he abused.

How haunted was I by the Mets? A generation ago, when I worked in the book business, I had a dream that we were publishing Gary Carter’s memoirs. We titled it “On Bended Knee,” as it discussed his life as a Christian and as a catcher. The next day, I told my assistant about my reverie and that title. He told me to shut up because there was no way I could have dreamed that up. He was a Cubs fan, after all.

Forgive this personal digression by way of a TV column. Allow me to indulge in “Once Upon a Time in Queens.” I probably don’t have another 35 years to wait.


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Kevin McDonough can be reached at kevin.tvguy@gmail.com.