During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdowns shuttered the country and called an indefinite timeout on pro ball, The Last Dance, a ten-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1998 Chicago Bulls, gripped a sports-starved market.
The epic, which paired game footage with never-before-seen interviews, provided a distraction from the coronavirus. It also inspired a debate over what other teams, or events, could serve as the basis for a similar documentary.
The Yankees, of course, dominated the conversation.
Aaron Cohen apparently paid attention, as he wrote and directed When New York Was One: The Yankees, the Mets, & the 2000 World Series, a FOX Sports Films documentary set to air on FS1 at the conclusion of the NLCS.
In some ways, the movie follows a template laid down by The Last Dance, and why not given the success of the series? Cohen mixes on-field footage, shots taken directly from the game, with contemporaneous b-roll from the sidelines. Spike Lee on the field conjures up images of Jerry Seinfeld touring the locker room alongside Jordan.
The film also features sit-down, to-camera interviews with a veritable who’s who of the Subway series. Joe Torre, Bobby Valentine, Andy Pettitte, David Cone, Bernie Williams, Al Leiter, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Todd Zeile weigh in on the divergent rails traveled to the Subway Series, as well as the ins and outs of the games as they unfolded. The emotional toll on Leiter after surrendering the go-ahead runs in the ninth inning of Game Five, and the exuberance of Williams running down a Mike Piazza fly ball to clinch the series stand out as highlights of a familiar story, but told from a different, more intimate angle.
The gem of the piece, however, emerges when Cohen unpacks the rivalry between Roger Clemens and Piazza. The feud began months earlier, when Rocket delivered a beanball to the Mets’ catcher. The bad blood boiled over in Game Two of the World Series, however, when Piazza shattered his bat, sending shards of lumber to the mound. Clemens inexplicably picked up a piece and fired it towards Piazza as he ran down the line.
“I think Roger lost his mind for a second,” Pettitte said of the situation. Clemens, meanwhile, shrugged it off as an accident. In his interview, he explained that he believed he had the ball, noting his fielding form, before reiterating that if he wanted to hit Piazza with the bat, he would have hit Piazza with the bat.
Not everyone took the confrontation in stride, though. “I thought that that was disgusting,” said Valentine, the former Mets’ manager. “It took away all of the spectacular drama of us playing the Yankees. It was a damn shame.”
With Clemens and Piazza providing the signature “I took it personal” moment that The Last Dance perfected, there is one key difference separating the two films: escaping reality versus acknowledging reality. The Last Dance existed almost exclusively in the 1990s, ignoring the present moment, and at the time it aired, that’s what the country wanted. When New York Was One opens with a pan across the New York skyline, complete with the Twin Towers, a somewhat heavy-handed bit of foreshadowing, a visual that signals to viewers that the film would, at some point, grapple with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The fade transitions to masks (those worn by the interviewees and in public), empty streets, and other symbols of the pandemic’s epicenter in the United States. Cohen doesn’t ignore the coronavirus, or the history that unfolded in New York, rather he weaves it into his narrative. In some ways, he has the benefit of time: The Last Dance was basically in the can before the pandemic struck, and incorporating any of it in March and April, when the virus climbed to its apex, would have felt too soon. Now, though, months removed from the lockdowns, it’s worth acknowledging and discussing. Or, as Cone said, “New York always comes back. It always has. It always will.”
When New York Was One will air on October 15 on FS1, after the NLCS game. You won’t want to miss it.