Observations From ‘ONCE UPON A TIME IN QUEENS’

30 for 30 presented us with another relevant, intriguing piece about the New York Mets. Specifically speaking, the polarizing 1986 squad. It was a four-parter, not intended to rival the famed ‘The Last Dance‘ Chicago Bulls docuseries, even though there were plenty of comparisons. And if I’m speaking candidly, there were some styles of this 30 for 30 that seemed to mimic the exact playbook director Jason Heir and Michael Jordan’s piece did. Nevertheless, as I watched ‘Once Upon a Time in Queens‘ I couldn’t help but become fascinated with just how this team, the game, the era this took place in was different world than today. It seems like a lifetime, even though it was only 35 years ago.

While I thoroughly enjoyed each episode, I wanted to note some important, some, just hilarious, observations we should discuss here.

WELL, THAT WAS QUICK.

It was all sort of a blur, right? The whole thing, it seemed to flow really fast. So much so that it was hard remembering what you had just watched. Thinking back at ‘The Last Dance’ or the mesmerizing OJ Simpson series ‘OJ: Made in America’, those pieces felt like you were running a marathon. When they ended you felt drained, invigorated, inspired, angry, sad, satisfied. You literally ran through the gamut of every emotion. But ‘Once Upon a Time in Queens’ didn’t hit the same notes. I believe that was because there was too much to cover with this team. Even for a four-part series that timed each episode at nearly an hour, it still went by too fast, leaving us wondering if they should’ve dove into certain stories a little deeper.

I understand the climax was the legendary ’86 World Series against the Boston Red Sox that catapulted them into baseball lore, but the payoff didn’t feel the same. It didn’t have the same feeling as when the Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz in the ’98 NBA Finals to win Michael Jordan and his Bulls their final title of their immaculate run in the 90s together, thus ending one of the most dominating sports franchise powerhouses of all time.

This makes me contemplate further that maybe I’m being too dispirited. Thinking back, the way Keith Hernandez spoke of his past teammates, giving a flying you know about what he said, or the way Lenny Dykstra slurred through what he could remember of them, it all felt fleeting. As I’ve gotten a few days to chew on the matter, I’ve come to the conclusion that the ’86 Mets were truly a closer unit than that of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. The way the former Mets spoke of each other now and back then was exactly the way siblings converse.

Critiquing, poking fun, the chemistry and the 162-game season closeness, it did feel genuine like a family, and maybe it just took some time to ruminate in my mind about what I had just watched to truly appreciate a team that we may never see the likes of again in our lifetime. The way the game was played. The way that an ever-changing New York supported these Mets. These bums, these dirty sons of bitches were lovable for those who lived through that decade and for a new generation of viewers, if only for the short four hours ESPN gave us.

DAVEY JOHNSON

I never, and I mean never, appreciated Davey Johnson before this series. He was always kind of an aloof man to me. Probably because his years as the Washington Nationals’ manager from 2011-2013. Davey came off as a rah rah guy with described genius from announcers and analysis we never really saw, I never saw, with the Nats. Yeah, he won Manager of the Year twice, including in 2012 with those same Nats I spoke of, even though I thought the Reds’ Dusty Baker should’ve won, but his resurgence as a relevant manager in the league in the early 2010s was short-lived. In the 1980s though, Davey Johnson blew me away.

When you hear the old-timers speak, they talk about the unbridled will to win of Sparky Anderson. The genius of Tommy Lasorda and the short-lived monster in the Midwest that Dick Howser‘s Kansas City Royals were. But Davey Johnson was always a footnote in those conversations. Were they ignorant of him? Or was I not listening well enough? I believe the latter. No one could’ve managed this cast of characters that the Mets were quite like Davey Johnson. From the drug incidents, to the head-cases and egos, and the celebrities, Davey Johnson steered a sinking ship to port by some miracle, and it just sort of clicked all at the right time.

My favorite story of Davey Johnson was when he ripped apart the plane’s maintenance bill Mets brass gave him for the team destroying the plane after partying, following their NL Pennant win. Hilarious. Him saying, “They can pay for it” was such a players manager move and I’m here for it.

Oh, and if they ever made a movie about the ’86 Mets Ed Helms should play Davey Johnson. The resemblance is uncanny and a little bit scary!

GARY CARTER WAS THE HEART AND SOUL OF TEAM

Change my mind. There was no question in my mind. Keith Hernandez might’ve been a pseudo leader of the clubhouse to the media, but the good-looking and well spoken Carter played with so much heart, and performed so well, that it was difficult to overlook him as being anything but the true captain of this ball club. He made his presence on the team known. None of those no-name pitchers amounted to much after the Mets, but it was Carter who called those games that brought out their true potential. True, he might’ve been Montreal’s legend, but he was New York’s hero in that small amount of time. Gary Carter‘s wife, Sandra, said something earlier in the series, I believe, in the second episode, when she claimed Gary “hated being the last out”.

While that particular statement seemed a little out of place when I heard it, in the last episode when she said it again during his final at bat of Game 6 of the World Series against Boston I had the Ah-ha! moment. It was such a brilliant foreshadow moment the series gave us, that didn’t pay off until you seen Gary Carter refusing to fail in a nail-biting moment that seemed to sway Boston’s side. I never really paid it any attention, but it was Gary Carter who kicked off the historic comeback. Ray Knight and Mookie Wilson were the standouts of the game, sure, but the unsung hero in every definition of the word was Gary Carter. Gone too soon, Mr. Carter. Gone too soon.

DRUG ABUSE ISN’T FUNNY

While I’m sure some of these former players laugh looking back at the stupid things they did, and it’s good to have a laugh, the way the series kept it as a recurring theme like a movie’s score would do, felt awkward. ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ can get away with it, because it’s about drugs, but in a baseball documentary, to keep poking fun at it seems reckless. Especially, when you discover just how traumatically it affected certain players more than others. Keith Hernandez’s Hall of Fame status is damaged because of his cocaine abuse in the 1980s. In the first episode, he even said himself that this was the reason for his imagine being hurt in the public eye. You can actually see the pain in Daryl Strawberry’s and Dwight Gooden‘s face when they speak of how their experiences with drugs affected them.

Not just their careers, but their lives off the field. Hearing Dwight Gooden explain after their World Series victory that he went to dealers to get the “stuff Len Bias had” was devastating to hear. And when he revealed he watched the Mets’ championship Ticker Tape parade celebration from the confines of a crackhouse shoves us to those dark times of Dwight Gooden’s addiction. Strawberry’s struggles are even darker. You can just see witness it with every word he speaks about it. He has that thousand yard stare describing his struggles. It led him to physically abusing women, it hurt his family life, his own career even. He’s lost millions because of his addiction. Lenny Dykstra should be the example of drug ads kids see in school. He’s almost a caricature of what he once was.

His interviews in present day were rambles, brain fogs, swears and afterthoughts of a man who was a really good ball player in his early years. So the way the series used drugs as a sometimes comical backdrop didn’t land whatsoever with me. In fact, I kind of wished they would’ve went deeper into some of these players’ struggles to inject a more somber feeling in us. Regardless, though, I do understand the pace of it. Plus, the 30 for 30 ‘Doc and Daryl’ in 2016 fully details their addictions during and after their playing days.

KEITH HERNANDEZ HAD BEST STORY

The story about Keith Hernandez and his strained relationship with his father was the most compelling to me. What the series didn’t really explain fully was that Hernandez’s father John Hernandez was a minor league first baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals and finally the New York Yankees in the 1940s. It wasn’t like his father was some wannabe giving his son advice, his father actually played the game his entire life. I found it very interesting that Keith Hernandez would call his father and brother in between innings on the phone and they would give him advice.

It showed a vulnerable-ness in him we never seen or even knew for that matter. Clearly, he was looking for acceptance from his father– a man he admired and respected until he just had enough one day. After Keith blew up at his father on the phone to lay off him during a regular season game, only to find out that was the downward turning point in their relationship going forward was tough to hear. Keith Hernandez tells us he was never able to apologize to his father and thank him for everything he did for him. The camera stays on him as long as it could, and in those few moments we see him lost in that thought of what could be. Of things that should’ve been said. Of a missed opportunity.

Here are some smaller observations I have to point out:

Daryl Strawberry’s “I don’t want to be noticed” when trying to envy a homeless person sounded disingenuous. The way some were trying to mold this moment into something it wasn’t felt forced, probably not even fully true, and I assume taken out of context.

Racism in America in the 1980s was worst than I had imagined. What Daryl Strawberry went through in the minors was heartbreaking.

Dwight Gooden was not a big game pitcher. When the pressure was on it seemed he always crumbled. Aside for various other reasons, it might very well be one of the reasons his name isn’t mentioned much at all in Hall of Fame candidacy discussions.

Did Roger Clemens jinx the Red Sox? How is this not talked about more? He shaved his stubble near, what we all thought, was the end of the game, and Keith Hernandez spoke of so “he looked good for the cameras”. Bill Buckner missed that damn ground ball, yes, but Clemens might’ve jinxed the whole team! Keith Hernandez threw a fit after popping up to center field for the second out of the 10th inning, but when the Mets started rallying back he stayed right at Davey Johnson’s chair so not to jinx his team. Come on, Clemens! Also, Sox manager John McNamara should’ve kept Clemens in another inning. Calvin Schiraldi didn’t have it. All around, Game 6 was poorly managed.

We needed more Bill Burr. I get he was interviewed to give us what Sox fans were thinking and feeling at that time, and he probably didn’t’ want to relive the tough moment to pump up a 30 for 30 about the Mets, but we only seen him three or four times. We all need more Bill Burr in our lives.

Kevin Mitchell‘s memory of Calvin Schiraldi in the minors with him was so damn cool! When they were roommates years before the ’86 series, Schiraldi told Mitchell he knows how to strike him out, “one fast in, and two sliders away”. Mitchell never forgot that and it bit Schiraldi in the ass.

Keith Hernandez is a cat guy and that makes so much sense now. He seems to have the personality of a cat.

New York Mets brass and General Manager’s Frank Cashen’s dismantling of the ’86 Mets strikes odd comparisons to the 1997 Florida Marlins fire sale after their championship run. Both rosters cashed in their valuables for spare parts.

My absolute favorite camera shot, which I will always think about when remembering this series, was after the Mets won Game 6, and the camera followed Mookie Wilson into the dugout and into the locker room. There’s so much in that moment that gives me chills. It was like we were witnessing him as a kid playing the game because it’s fun. We saw pure and raw emotion from him after taht big win. I loved that shot!

Random Mets fans retelling their stories to start the fourth episode was a good call and covered the void left by relevant Mets fandom throughout the piece. This series could’ve used some more celebrity fans. George R.R. Martin and Chuck D didn’t quite do it for me. When they spoke of the Mets winning Game 6 and Game 7 of the World Series, and even during that we didn’t hear from Chuck D once. That was a weird choice, considering he seemed the biggest Mets celebrity fan the creators of the piece interviewed.

Keith Hernandez and others were right, the series against Boston was their worst all year. Ray Knight was by far their best hitter, slugging .391 with nine hits and five RBIs in 23 at bats. Gary Carter was solid too, hitting .276 with nine RBIs and eight hits in 29 at bats. Hernandez hit a whopping .231 and struggled much of the series; a far cry from his productive .310 and 171 hit regular season. Dwight Gooden went 0-2 in the series with a 8.00 ERA in 13 innings pitched. Ron Darling was their most productive pitcher in the series, going 1-1 with a 1.53 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 17.2 innings pitched.

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