Lenny Dykstra mobbed by his Mets teammates during the 1986...

Lenny Dykstra mobbed by his Mets teammates during the 1986 season. Credit: Newsday/David Pokress

"Citizen Kane" it ain’t. But as baseball tales go, that of the 1986 Mets packs a narrative punch of its own.

So why not let Nick Davis tell it, in the form of a four-part, four-hour ESPN "30 for 30" documentary, "Once Upon a Time in Queens," premiering Sept. 14 and 15?

The director is a successful filmmaker in his own right, and he happens to come from a family tree thick with famous storytellers, including his maternal grandfather, Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Mankiewicz wrote the landmark 1941 film "Citizen Kane" with Orson Welles, and just last year was portrayed by Gary Oldman in the film, "Mank."

Unlike Oldman, Davis’ stars never have won an Academy Award for Best Actor, but they include no shortage of colorful characters, from a hilariously profane Lenny Dykstra to Keith Hernandez and his cat, Hadji.

It is a wild ride that recreates a wild era in New York, one Davis experienced as a Mets fan who was 21 at the time.

In "Once Upon a Time in Queens," he gets to sit down with most of the key players of that era, a now-56-year-old speaking to peers who themselves are in late middle age.

Mookie Wilson, left, of the 1986 Mets and Nick Davis,...

Mookie Wilson, left, of the 1986 Mets and Nick Davis, director of "Once Upon a Time in Queens," a 30 for 30 documentary about the team that season. Credit: Maike Schulz

It is that distance from the events of the 1980s that he believes makes this the ideal time to catch up with these guys, when they still are vibrant but far enough removed to have perspective.

"I think 10 years [after] is too early, because they’re still protecting their own images and protecting their reputations," Davis said after a recent screening in Central Park of the first two episodes.

"These guys are all in their 50s or 60s. They’re letting it all hang out. Nobody was holding back. They were willing to tell me absolutely everything that went on – that they could remember."

That remembering could be a challenge not only because of the passage of time, but because of the mental fog induced by some players’ regular use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs.

It all is documented in the film, including a reflective and remorseful Dwight Gooden, who recalls that when Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose in 1986, Gooden told his drug dealer that he wanted some of what Bias had used.

Davis believes Gooden had not told that story publicly before, but the director acknowledged his primary mission was not breaking new journalistic ground about a season that has been chronicled thoroughly.

"[Viewers] may know about the facts, but it’s never been told cinematically," he said, later adding, "It is a chance to tell this sweeping, epic story, and hit people on an emotional level."

The vintage footage and compelling talking heads compensate for the lack of news bombshells.

No one is more compelling than Dykstra, who is funny, insightful, poignant and spectacularly vulgar. (Davis could not use some of the amusing R-rated material.)

"He surprised me with his openness; he surprised me with his honesty and emotional accessibility," Davis said.

Near the end, Dykstra talks about how through it all, he always can be proud of having that ring.

"At the beginning he was hilarious," Davis said. "I was like, my God, this guy’s like Lenny Bruce.’ By the end of the interview, I felt like he was like Marlon Brando in ‘On the Waterfront.’

"His final bite in the film, I find just heartbreaking. I mean, here’s a guy, he hasn’t had an easy life, but at the end of it all he won a World Series in New York City. That still means something to him. That’s really cool and moving."

George Foster turned down an interview but most of the key living players were on board, once Davis convinced them the project was about "the complete story, and it’s a lot more than Doc [Gooden] and Darryl [Strawberry]."

The documentary covers the era’s debauchery, which was part of that team’s allure, especially for young fans.

"You felt that whole summer like the wheels could come off this time," he said. "We all heard the rumors. Maybe this isn’t going to work out.

"There are these moments during the season when it seems like they’re about to drive off a cliff, and it doesn’t happen . . . It was the constant danger looming that I think made how good they were that much more exciting."

Davis is slightly too young to remember the 1969 Mets, so these are his guys. He recalled telling himself during a game late in the 1985 divisional race, which the Mets lost to the Cardinals, to remember what was unfolding as a historical event.

"I felt like this was like the Beatles from Hamburg to ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’" he said. "It’s happening. It’s really, really happening."

Davis hopes to reach non-Mets fans, too, using the "incredible characters" he had to work with. He will have promotional resources behind him ranging from ESPN to comedian Jimmy Kimmel, one of the executive producers.

As for his own storytelling chops, they are a century in the making.

In addition to "Mank," Davis’ great uncle, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, also was a famed filmmaker, and his paternal grandparents, parents, brother, several cousins and wife, novelist Jane Mendelsohn, have been writers of one sort or another.

Davis said earlier in life he had to work through feeling the pressure of his family legacy, "but then you get past that and realize, hey, this is what I love to do.

"Thankfully, I have the resources and can talk to some of them and I have some genetic predisposition toward telling stories on screens, which my family’s been doing for almost 90 years now. So that feels good and right."

Davis has a book, "Competing With Idiots," a dual portrait of his grandfather and great uncle, due out on the very day the ESPN documentary premieres. He signed the book contract in 2003.

"I don’t even know what to make of this coincidence," he said of the confluence of two of his interests.

"Just as I have no memory of not being a Mets fan," he said, "I have no memory of not being the grandson of the guy who wrote ‘Citizen Kane.’"

Set to cross the Mets and the Mankiewicz brothers off his to-do list on the same day, he is not sure what comes next.

"It’s truly insane," he said. "I feel like that’s it. That’s all I got. I don’t have the Beatles and pretzels. Those are my other two loves. Am I going to write a book about the Beatles and pretzels? I don’t know."


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