If anything, “Long Gone Summer” is a time capsule of a wonderful summer from 22 years ago, when baseball ruled the sports landscape — perhaps the last time, except for a few weeks in October 2004 and October 2016, when the national pastime could make that claim without any arguments.
Of course, we now know the events of that summer were not just a joyous ride, but a dirty one as well. Still, the movie works as a nostalgic if bittersweet remembrance of the great home run race. I suspect your reaction to it rests on how you view the entire era of performance-enhancing drugs. For younger viewers, it might be a shock to learn how extraordinary the chase was, that in the same year as Michael Jordan’s last dance, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were every bit as big as him.
Here are three takeaways I have from watching “Long Gone Summer.”
1. Everyone was into it
This was not overstated. When Sammy Sosa hit 20 home runs in June and turned the chase to catch Roger Maris into a three-person event — Ken Griffey Jr. was just two home runs behind McGwire at the All-Star break — it became a true pop culture moment. The attention ramped up even more after the break, even as Griffey slumped and it turned into a two-person slugfest. Heck, nightly news broadcasts sent their anchors for on-site coverage.
What made the home run race so exciting is that while most record chases or milestones aren’t that interesting — especially career ones, when it becomes inevitable the player will get there and it’s just a matter of when — this became a daily event. Not just in the parks where McGwire and Sosa played, but on the internet, where you could now get live updates, not having to wait for a late-night SportsCenter or the next day’s newspaper to see what happened.
I was an editor at ESPN.com that summer, in charge of our daily baseball coverage. Our editorial staff was much, much smaller than it is now. I remember essentially working something like 60 days in a row — that’s how ravenous the appetite was to follow the home run action.
Now, the idea that this chase helped save baseball or helped it bounce back from the 1994 strike is overstated. Similar things were said about Cal Ripken’s breaking of Lou Gehrig’s record in 1995 or the terrific Yankees-Mariners playoff series that fall. It was just something to say because it sounded like the right thing to say. In truth, after attendance fell 20% in 1995, it increased 6% in 1996, 5% in 1997 and 4% in 1998 — and then declined slightly in 1999. The excitement was about the home runs more than it was about baseball itself.
2. The actual home runs were spectacular
I mean, dear Lord, did McGwire hit some long blasts. The movie gives us plenty of highlights, and if you think the ball was juiced in 2019, I give you the 1998 baseball (to go along with juiced players). That’s why showing up early for batting practice — especially to see McGwire — became its own spectacle. Early in the film, McGwire reminds us, “There was pressure from day one.” In a sense, that began every day in BP, when McGwire was expected to put on a show before the real game began.
We learn that before each season, McGwire would write down a list of goals and then lock it in a safe for the year. We learn a little about how he had perfected his swing, short and compact for a power hitter. Indeed, while McGwire had help from PEDs, it’s easy to forget how good of a hitter he had become. Always patient at the plate, he drew 162 walks that year — he had only 509 at-bats, so he homered a ridiculous once every 7.27 at-bats.
I think all that helps explain why McGwire remains … I don’t know, not so much defiant (like Lance Armstrong), but in denial that PEDs might have helped. You can understand his thinking. I was focused. I set goals. There was all that pressure. It was mentally exhausting. Everybody was doing it. It’s still hard to hit a baseball. You try hitting 70 home runs.
ESPN’ Tim Keown just wrote a wonderful, must-read piece on the home run race. Keown wrote: “Everyone looks at my body,” McGwire told me in ’98, “but I use my mind more than my arms.”
Keown also wrote:
McGwire never had to answer the tough questions that season. There was one scare, the andro scare, when a reporter from The Associated Press wrote about a bottle of androstenedione that sat on the top shelf of McGwire’s locker. It wasn’t a steroid, necessarily, but it was close enough to raise suspicions. More than 20 years of media self-flagellation later — what should we have known and when should we have known it? — it’s probably accurate to say everyone involved got swept away by the eagerness to believe.
The movie doesn’t really get into this until the end, and, really, the last thing we need is another steroids debate. Would we like a little deeper self-reflection from McGwire? Sure. But, like we just saw in the Lance Armstrong documentary, it’s not in an athlete’s mindset to diminish their own accomplishments.
3. Sammy Sosa made it fun
One of the best scenes in the movie is the news conference with McGwire and Sosa when the Cardinals and Cubs met in early September, for the series in which McGwire would break Maris’ record. Sosa was enjoying the whole summer, embracing the spotlight — after all, he wasn’t supposed be chasing this hallowed record in the first place — and he managed to bring out some personality in the restrained McGwire.
Indeed, I don’t think the chase would have been nearly as exciting if it had been just McGwire. Now there were two races going on: the race to catch Maris and the race with each other. Maris was the marathon, but every day was its own 100-meter sprint. It was exhilarating.
An entire Sosa documentary would actually be fascinating. His rise from shoeshine boy in the Dominican Republic to iconic Cubs slugger — few players have ever been as beloved as Sosa was at Wrigley Field for a few years there — to his own downfall of sorts is a tragic arc. Cubs fans eventually grew weary of his desire for attention, which wore on teammates as well. His refusal to apologize for anything he might have taken has led to essentially an ongoing ban by Cubs ownership. As Keown points out, while McGwire was eventually welcomed back in the game, Sosa can’t even get an invite back to Wrigley.
That’s why the title of the film is perfect. So much of that summer is long gone: the home runs, the thrills, the innocence. And as we sit here with no baseball in the summer of 2020, maybe it’s time to forgive.