It’s not the year of a round-numbered anniversary, but as it’s a time without major league baseball, it will do. On Sunday at 9 pm ET, ESPN will air its premiere of Long Gone Summer, a 30 for 30 documentary on the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they vied to break Roger Maris‘ single-season mark of 61 homers, which had stood since 1961. While subsequent allegations concerning performance-enhancing drugs have dulled the luster of the two sluggers’ astronomical totals — 70 for McGwire, 66 for Sosa — director AJ Schnack is far less interested in singling out the pair for scolding than in reliving the excitement of the race, and the camaraderie of the two rivals, which isn’t to say that the topic of PEDs goes unaddressed.
Indeed, Schnack, an award-winning filmmaker whose previous credits include documentaries about They Might be Giants and Kurt Cobain, has gone against the industry grain at least somewhat in making the movie. As he told Uproxx’s Mike Adams this week:
I grew up outside St. Louis, also went to Mizzou. I was a Cardinal fan. That summer really reconnected me with my childhood experience of enjoying sports and enjoying baseball, driving around with my dad, listening to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon on the radio. And when that summer happened, I’d moved to L.A. I was starting to work in film, and it just reconnected me with all of those feelings and the emotions and the excitement that I felt about baseball. So I felt like, yes, we now know that that summer took place in baseball’s steroid era. But, first, >especially for people younger than us, I want to just say this is what that felt like, to be in the middle of that summer.
It’s a treatment that not everybody may be on board with, but one needn’t look too hard elsewhere to find somebody willing to shake their finger and scowl at the pair. McGwire is no longer on the BBWAA’s annual Hall of Fame ballot, having topped out at a meager 23.6% during his 10-year run, but Sosa is, and the annual reminders of why 90-something percent of the voters aren’t including him on their ballots despite his 609 career home runs and the thrills he provided along the way are a dime a dozen. While various people interviewed for the documentary, including McGwire (Sosa, not so much), express their regrets, the movie also reminds us that commissioner Bud Selig, union leader Donald Fehr, and the baseball industry in general cheered the two sluggers’ accomplishments while becoming engrossed in the chase.
Most of the documentary’s interviewees were directly involved with the race in some way, either as players, coaches, managers, executives, club employees, family members, and media. Yours truly is one of the few latecomers interviewed; I was merely a fan circa 1998, and while my regular attendance at Yankees games had more to do with the career change that would bring me into baseball writing a few years later, I was certainly following the race, and have written a considerable amount about both players as well as PEDs and home run totals in the past two decades. I get a few chances to speak my piece and provide some historical perspective, as does Effectively Wild’s Ben Lindbergh.
I viewed a screener of Long Gone Summer on Thursday and will have a fuller write-up of my reflections regarding the movie on Monday. Here’s the trailer:
If I’m reading the schedule correctly, Long Gone Summer will re-air at midnight ET that Sunday night/Monday morning, then at 7 pm ET Monday, and midnight on Friday/Saturday. It will also be available on demand via the ESPN app for Apple, Roku, and other platforms.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.
I’m very excited for this. I’m a pretty harsh critic on PED users in general in baseball, but at the same time I remember that ’98 summer and fall very fondly. I was at the age where I was no longer playing little league and many people turn away from baseball (my late teens), but that summer was endlessly entertaining in a way a homerun race hasn’t been since, or maybe won’t ever be again with the constant cloud of suspicion. So, I think it sounds like this documentary does a nice job of balancing both. Acknowledging that Sosa and McGwire weren’t Maris/Mantle, but we can still remember the fun while it lasted.