Movie Review: ESPN 30 for 30 'Long Gone Summer'
The next in the ESPN 30 for 30 Series takes audiences back to the Summer of 1998 with Slammin' Sammy and Mark McGwire.
The summer of 1998 went from something none of us baseball fans would ever forget, to one that we have all collectively tried to wash away from history. The cloud of steroids and the ugliness of lies and deceit that accompanied hearings in Washington D.C and public battles in the sports media are memories we’d all like to leave behind as much as the summer of '98 itself. It is the memories of bitter arguments among baseball historians and everyday fans that clouds what was once the most magical moment in the history of the sport, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s pursuit of Roger Maris’s single season home run record.
Regardless of your feelings today, in 1998 sports fans were collectively enthralled by the home run summer. McGwire was mythic in stature and his towering blasts held us all in wonder and brought people to ballparks even when the home team wasn’t worth watching. Sammy Sosa was less mythic, more earthbound but with an infectious enthusiasm that made him appealing.
The documentary Long Gone Summer returns us to the summer of 1998. The documentary briefly blows away the fog of history, sets aside the steroids and the bitter in-fighting and historical revisionism, and looks back at what the moment was like as this incredible back and forth battle of the long balls unfolded. It’s easy to get lost in what happened after and much harder to remember the good times, when our collective consciousness had the plausible denial to allow us all to unite and enjoy baseball for a moment.
Long Gone Summer features sit down interviews with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that, for just a moment, allow them the revelry of those moments that history and their own actions have denied them. In these brief snatches of time you can see the wistfulness in both McGwire and Sosa as for once they are allowed to fondly recall moments that are now lost to infamy due to the fallout of the steroid era.
I know that we have all seemingly agreed that we are not allowed to enjoy what took place during the steroid era. Scolds will tell you that everything from the summer of 1998 is tainted by drugs and lies and obfuscation, but when watching Long Gone Summer, I must admit, I could not help but be swept up again in how exciting it was to watch McGwire and Sosa do things that many thought were not possible, to seemingly choose when and how they would hit home runs.
As a Chicago Cubs fan, having Sammy Sosa chasing down Mark McGwire via one of the greatest one month hitting performances in history, June of 1998 as captured by ESPN, was one of the great moments of my sports loving life. Sammy was my guy and he was doing something incredible and he had the chance to snatch history away from a member of the hated St Louis Cardinals. Indeed, the schadenfreude for Cubs fans was a palpable part of the appeal of the home run chase of 1998.
But even those baseball fans who didn’t have a tasty rivalry to drive their interest in the home run chase, people couldn’t help but be caught up in the excitement. Ratings for ESPN’s cornerstone Sportscenter were through the roof with fans desperate to know whether McGwire or Sosa had homered that day. This was near the beginning of the internet age and cable television was still the dominant medium for sports fans to get the latest news. I have distinct memories of the evenings when ESPN would break into regular programming to cover the home run chase. Mark McGwire’s every swing was a potential headline and ESPN didn’t want to miss a minute.
Long Gone Summer evokes those memories and the bittersweet nature of those memories as well. Long Gone Summer director A.J Schnack doesn’t shy away from the steroid scandal but he’s not exactly performing 60 Minutes level journalism either. Schnack does not press much upon McGwire or Sosa regarding steroid use and Sammy especially gets off easy with Schnack never asking him the question or forcing him to confirm or deny his involvement with steroids.
Instead, talking heads such as sports writer Paul Sullivan are left to convey Sammy’s long held stance that he never 'officially' tested positive for steroids. McGwire is slightly more forthcoming on the issue but he also gets off rather easy, equivocating his use of steroids with how everyone in baseball used steroids at the time and much of it was legal, over the counter and not banned by baseball at the time he was using it.
Neither player is asked about their feelings about the Baseball Hall of Fame. The documentary appears to equivocate on that issue by showing McGwire being inducted into the Cardinals team Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, Cubs star pitcher Kerry Wood calls upon his former team to try and work things out with Sammy. Sosa has not been back to Wrigley Field, the home of his greatest achievements, since the team traded him away in 2005. Reports indicate a deeply strained relationship between Sammy and the Cubs over Sammy's unwillingness to admit his alleged steroid use.
Long Gone Summer is not going to be for everyone. If you are still desperately bitter about steroid use and the less than stellar reputations of McGwire and Sosa, Long Gone Summer isn’t going to change your mind nor is it intended to, regardless of what Sammy Sosa claims the documentary will do. Long Gone Summer comes from the odd perspective of being nostalgic for a moment in time, in sports history, a time in baseball lore, that is no longer welcome within that lore.
If that’s not something you are willing to go with, I don’t recommend Long Gone Summer. But, if you don’t mind overlooking the tainted legacy and casting your mind back before we cancelled roided home run monsters, Long Gone Summer is kind of great. The movie is definitely benefiting from my willingness to turn a blind eye to history but it nevertheless entertained the hell out of me and reminded me of that summer and the joyous hype that for a brief moment united almost everyone.
Long Gone Summer debuts Sunday night, June, 14th, 2020 on ESPN.