Long Gone Summer Refuses to Bury McGwire, Sosa, and the 1998 Home Run Race

In 2001, HBO Films aired a made-for-television movie called 61*, about the 1961 race between Yankees sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris as they attempted to topple the hallowed single-season home run record held by Babe Ruth. The movie opened with footage of Mark McGwire hitting his 60th home run in 1998, as actors playing Maris’ sons paged through a scrapbook their mother kept of their late father’s accomplishments. Soon enough, the movie delved into a dramatization of the 1961 race, with a script that reflected upon the question offered by 61*’s tagline: “Why did America have room in its heart for only one hero?”

Nineteen years later, Long Gone Summer, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that premiered on Sunday night, looks back at that 1998 race between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and the brief stretch when the baseball world carried the two rival sluggers in its collective heart as the pair challenged a record that had stood for nearly four decades. While subsequent allegations about both players’ use of performance-enhancing drugs have dulled the luster of their achievements and astronomical home run totals — 70 for McGwire, 66 for Sosa — director A.J. Schnack’s movie is far less interested in scolding anyone than it is in reliving the excitement of the race and the mutual respect and camaraderie of the two rivals. That’s not to say that the topic of PED usage goes unaddressed, but it does take a back seat to what was, at the time, a feel-good story in a sport that was still recovering from the impact of the 1994 season-ending players’ strike.

I was one of more than three dozen people interviewed for Long Gone Summer, nearly all of whom were otherwise connected to the race as players, coaches, managers, executives, club employees, family members, broadcasters, or print media; to my eye, Effectively Wild’s Ben Lindbergh and MLB.com’s Jennifer Langosch were the only other participants besides myself who were outsiders at the time. It was a unique opportunity, and while my time onscreen was limited, I’m glad that the final product — which I only viewed for the first time late last week — turned out well while taking a lighter tack than we’ve seen over the past two decades. It’s not hard to find people, inside baseball or beyond, willing to rebuke McGwire, Sosa, and MLB itself for the game’s drug problem, as the annual Hall of Fame voting reminds us. Schnack, a native of Edwardsville, Illinois — about half an hour from St. Louis — and an award-winning documentarian whose previous credits include films covering They Might Be Giants and Kurt Cobain, chose a different route. In doing so, he secured the cooperation of both McGwire and Sosa, both of whom offer a generous share of recollections and introspection regarding that season 22 years ago.

“As we open up the 1998 regular season,” says the familiar voice of broadcaster Joe Buck about four and a half minutes into Long Gone Summer, “everybody [is] picking Mark McGwire and/or Ken Griffey Jr. to make that assault on Roger Maris’ home run record.” Maris hit his 61 home runs in 1961, an expansion year that marked the advent of the 162-game schedule. He beat out Mantle, widening a 51-48 lead at the start of September as the latter was hobbled by an abscess in his hip. In the 33 years following his accomplishment, only three players — Willie Mays in 1965 (52), George Foster in 1977 (52), and Cecil Fielder in 1990 (51) — even topped 50 home runs, but a flurry of changes in the early 1990s, including expansion into high-altitude Denver, changes to the baseball itself, and (quite possibly) the influx of PEDs fueled an uptick in home run rates…

…such that three more hitters – the Indians’ Albert Belle (50 in the strike-shortened 1995 season), the Orioles’ Brady Anderson (50 in 1996), and the Athletics’ McGwire (52 in ’96) – reached the 50 mark as well, all of them in the aftermath of the strike, which devastated the sport, at least as far as attendance went. When Griffey hit an AL-high 56 for the Mariners in 1997, and McGwire hit 58 that same season despite a 19-game homerless drought surrounding his July 31 trade from the A’s to the Cardinals, it seemed only a matter of time before the record fell.

“People didn’t just want to see the record broken, they wanted it to be someone they felt was worthy,” said ESPN’s T.J. Quinn, who circa 1998 was covering the Mets for the Bergen Record, but who later became one of the top investigative reporters covering PEDs. The spotlight, and thus the pressure, was on McGwire from the outset. As the movie shows, he hit a grand slam off the Dodgers’ Ramon Martinez on Opening Day, then followed with homers in each of the next three games as well. After an eight-game drought, he bashed three against the expansion Diamondbacks, and finished the month with 11 homers in the Cardinals’ 27 games, a 66-homer pace.

Sosa, despite having hit at least 36 homers in each of the previous three seasons, making one All-Star team, and pairing 30 homers and 30 steals in a single season twice, was much less well known at the start of 1998, and on nobody’s radar as far as challenging Maris. Indeed, the Cubs were coming off a 94-loss season, “militantly mediocre” (to use George Will’s expression in the movie) or worse at a time when the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls were winning six NBA titles in an eight-year span. McGwire, a relative newcomer to the NL, admits in the movie, “I knew he played in our league but I really didn’t know anything about him.”

The Cubs’ right fielder homered just seven times in the Cubs’ first 41 games; the team’s most compelling player to that point was rookie pitcher Kerry Wood, who on May 6, in just his fifth major league appearance, fanned 20 Astros to tie the record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game. On May 24, 49 games into the season, Sosa trailed McGwire 24 to nine, with Griffey at 18. “Chicago is very cold, and I’m one of the worst hitters in the cold weather,” he says in the movie. “When it starts to get warm, that’s me.” In Cubs losses to the Braves on May 25 and the Phillies on May 26, he hit two homers apiece, beginning a wild binge in which he swatted 21 homers in 22 games. By the end of June — during which he set a still-standing record with 20 homers in one month — he had pulled even with Griffey, and was just four behind McGwire.

1998 Home Runs by Month
Month McGwire Sosa Griffey
March/April 11 6 11
May 16 7 8
June 10 20 14
July 8 9 8
August 10 13 6
September 15 11 9

Sosa’s spree, and his natural charm, brought him national attention, and he reveled in it. “Mark, he was everything, the golden boy,” says Sosa. “The only thing I guess I have more than he [does] is my charisma. I was just happy to be there.”

“He always knew where the camera was,” says Fred Mitchell, a longtime columnist at the Chicago Tribune, “and so if he was in the dugout after hitting a home run, he was blowing kisses to his mother [and] to fans.”

While Griffey fell off the pace in August, the mounting home run totals, and the proximity of the two rival franchises, drew McGwire and Sosa together. “You couldn’t write a better script, man,” says Ray Lankford, the Cardinals’ center fielder. “You’ve got two guys, they’re both in the National League, both in the same division, going back and forth. We’ve got Mark, they’ve got Sammy. Like two heavyweight boxers.”

Schnack’s script focuses on a pair of late-season two-game series between the Cubs and Cardinals, the first beginning on August 18, 1998 at Wrigley Field with the pair tied at 47 homers. Nobody homered the first night, but Sosa took the lead with a fifth-inning homer in the second. McGwire tied the game and the race with a homer in the eighth, then hit a go-ahead homer in the 10th.

McGwire homered in each game of a doubleheader against the Mets the next day pushing him to 51 and — based on a statement he’d made in late June (“Until somebody gets to 50 by September, then it’s a legitimate thing to talk about”) — legitimizing a discussion over whether Maris’ record was within reach. But by his own admission, and the observations of others, the growing scrutiny was getting to him, just as it did to Maris, who’s shown in a 1961 clip saying, “When I reached the 50 mark, the pressure started coming in. I don’t think it was the pressure so much of playing the game of baseball but answering the questions of the press day after day.”

If McGwire didn’t already feel that way, he surely did by the time an August 21 report from Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein was published. Wilstein had spotted a bottle of steroid precursor androstenedione in his locker at Busch Stadium. While still “perfectly legal,” and available over the counter, the drug had already been banned by the NCAA, the NFL, and the International Olympic Committee. McGwire, who in the movie calls androstenedione “one of those things that obviously turns out to be not a cool thing to do,” reveals that he asked for the company supplying him with it “to back me up and help me out, and they declined. So I was thrown out to the wolves, but it wasn’t like I was the only guy in the locker room who had something in their locker.”

The movie notes that Commissioner Bud Selig and Players Association executive director Donald Fehr took the extraordinary step of issuing a joint statement that read in part, “The substances in question are available over the counter and are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In view of these facts, it seems inappropriate that such reports should overshadow the accomplishments of players such as Mark McGwire.” What goes unseen — and to these eyes, what should have been explored as well — is the reaction to Wilstein, who was quickly dubbed a pariah by some of his peers, his professionalism questioned. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa tried to get Wilstein banned from the clubhouse, while writers such as the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy excoriated him, “No wonder ballplayers loathe the media. Mark McGwire is stalking one of baseball’s most cherished records… and suddenly he’s engaged in a tabloid-driven controversy that’s painting him as a cheater and a bad role model. It’s unfair.”

The controversy soon receded, the pair kept bashing homers and passing legends like Hack Wilson (56 homers in 1930), Jimmie Foxx (58 in ’32), Hank Greenberg (58 in ’38), and Ruth (59 in ’21) seemingly on a daily basis. By the time the Cubs came to Busch Stadium for a two-game set on September 7-8, McGwire had 60 homers, with Sosa, who had homered 12 times in his past 20 games, at 58. The movie shows the two sluggers carted to a joint pregame press conference to accommodate the throngs of reporters. “If the press conference was Mark by himself, it’d have been painful,” says La Russa. “The fact that he was sharing them with Sammy made it 180 degrees difference. Only they knew what they were going through.”

McGwire homered off the Cubs’ Mike Morgan on September 7, tying Maris. ESPN’s Bob Ley invoked the Miracle on Ice in describing the home run race: “The last time sports made this country feel so good was in the dead of winter 18 years ago, when a bunch of college kids beat the Soviets and won an Olympic gold medal.”

McGwire broke the record the next night with a homer into the left field corner off Steve Trachsel. “Touch first, Mark! You are the single-season home run king,” exclaimed Joe Buck, whose father, longtime Cardinals announcer Jack Buck, burst into tears. Sosa came in from right field to congratulate his rival, an extraordinary gesture.

Sosa kept humming along, hitting four homers in three days from September 11-13 to get to 62 himself. From there, the pair’s pace slowed; Sosa actually overtook McGwire with his 66th home run on September 25 against the Astros, but McGwire tied him within 45 minutes. The latter would go on to hit five homers on the final three days of the regular season, including two in Game 162 against the Expos after asking out of the lineup. Sosa didn’t hit another, but his Cubs won a Game 163 play-in against the Giants to claim the NL Wild Card, though they were swept in the Division Series by the Braves.

A montage of magazine covers, talk show appearances, and awards follows. Finally, 90 minutes in and just 13 from the finish line, the movie finally returns to the PED issue. “The home run chase of ’98 generally speaking it was a feel-good thing for baseball fans,” says Bob Costas, “Not just for fans in St. Louis and Chicago, but throughout the country. In retrospect, there was a price to pay for it.”

Cue George Will pontificating about the sanctity of statistics — good Lord, is this the price we must pay for our sins? — and then Barry Bonds eclipsing McGwire’s total with 73 homers in 2001, then clips of BALCO and the 2005 Congressional hearings, with McGwire and Sosa’s carefully parsed statements, the latter read by a translator. Soon it’s on to the 2009 New York Times report that Sosa failed the supposedly anonymous survey test, the closest thing there is to proof that he used PEDs, yet far short of the weight of evidence against McGwire, Bonds, Roger Clemens, and every slugger who has served a suspension for a failed drug test.

“The current owners of the Cubs seem to want you to say something about steroid use,” says an offscreen interviewer to Sosa after that montage. “They want you to ‘come clean.'”

“Why do they worry about me when everybody in that era did it?” says Sosa, shrugging and laughing when asked again by the interviewer why the focus is on him. A few minutes later, he says, “I can say to you what Mark and I did in ’98 was incredible. Doesn’t matter if we’re never going to make it to the Hall of Fame, but that’s okay. I am at peace with God, I’m happy, I’m great, I’ve got my family, I’ve got my granddaughter, I’m good.” He doesn’t sound like a man on the verge of an apology, nor one who’s lying awake at night awaiting an invitation to return to Wrigley Field.

McGwire, who admitted to steroid use in January 2010, shows his own mix of remorse and defiance. “First of all, it was stupid to do. Paid the consequences, still do. But there was no regulations back in those days, nobody ever talked about anything,” he says, before mentioning recovery from injuries as his motivation for using the drugs. “By no means did I need to do it for strength purposes. And I regret doing it. The bottom line is that if there was drug testing back then, it would never happen, that would have never happened. I don’t encourage it, I don’t want anybody to follow any footsteps like that. It just — it sorta sucks.”

Shortly after that, yours truly pops up to repeat lines I’ve invoked hundreds of times in discussing the pair: that the two have borne the brunt of the blame for the steroid era in a way that they don’t deserve. The steroid problem wasn’t just a matter of individual bad actors, it was a complete institutional failure on the part of the owners, the union, the players, and to some extent the media.

It’s not quite the last word of the movie — Costas gets his say again, distinguishing between making a judgment about the immorality of using PEDs versus one about the inauthenticity of the records, and Quinn and Bernie Miklasz get their final turns at bat, as do the principals — but it’s gratifying to get the chance to say it onscreen, at a pivotal moment. That goes doubly when it’s in the service of a project that acknowledges the missteps of its central figures but refuses to deny the joy that they brought to fans, and spread throughout the game at a time when it very much needed it — and was very much profiting from it. Their accomplishments might not resonate to the same extent that they did in 1998, but to echo what I’ve written about Sosa in his Hall of Fame profile, these two players deserve better than to be confined to the fiction that they were, or have become, meaningless — and so do we. So hat’s off to Schnack for evoking the fun and suspense of that summer, particularly because right now, we really could use some of that.

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... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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2 years ago

I don’t think there’s any use memory-holing the whole thing, but I certainly don’t see a need for these guys to be in the HoF. I don’t think that it’s some amazing coincidence that the only people to surpass Maris were known steroid users. I don’t know about asterisks, of course, but I can look at Barry Bonds’ stats, and McGwire’s, and Sosa’s, and know that their achievements were unlikely to have occurred if not for the use of PEDs. It was wrong for them to do. Besides Andro, which for a time was available in a lightly-regulated industry, steroids are illegal. Players at the time knew it was wrong. Frank Thomas called for steroid testing years before the summer of 98. MLB was wrong to turns its head, the union was wrong to get divided over it, but the individual players made a decision to use something illegal to gain advantage and in effect steal money and privilege from clean players. I don’t need to see their busts in the hall of fame. Their bats, gloves, balls, etc. do just fine to tell their story.

And to be clear, I can look at Babe Ruth and know he might not have hit as many out if he had to take some turns at the plate against Satchel Paige and his records may have seen a more serious challenge if he had played alongside Josh Gibson. Of course an important distinction when it comes to HoF enshrinement is that Babe Ruth didn’t individually gain this advantage, didn’t individually preclude an integrated league, etc. If someone had set a HR record last season with the rabbit balls we might chatter about that fact, but that’s a different thing than if the person had taken illegal drugs to play better, corked their bat, stolen signs, and so on.