Another ESPN 30 for 30 documentary covering Chicago sports from 1998? Count me in. The Last Dance was a ratings hit during a time with no sports. You can check out my thoughts on The Last Dance here. ESPN has followed up with Lance, Be Water, and now Long Gone Summer. This ESPN film chronicles Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing the single-season home run record during the 1998 season.
The 1998 MLB season is often romanticized. Following the strike in 1994, this was the year when baseball “returned”, at least according to most fans. Cal Ripken Jr. breaking the Iron Man streak gained some recognition, but chasing the single-season home run record held by Roger Maris was clearly the bigger spectacle. Sosa and McGwire brought the national pop-culture collective to baseball. As Bob Costas mentions in the trailer, though, “in retrospect, there was a price to pay for it.”
Baseball in 1998 was rampant with players taking performance-enhancing drugs. Can you imagine a time where a league was not testing players? Once again baseball had a serious cheating problem. In 1998 though, suspicions were low. Players were not even talking about it. Everybody just wanted to see home runs. What should we expect from Long Gone Summer?
Why Was 1998 a Magical Year?
Two players breaking a prestigious record, of course, turned heads around the world. Roger Maris hitting 61 home runs in a single season in 1961 was a coveted record. When Barry Bonds surpassed McGwire in 2001, the magic wasn’t quite the same. What made 1998 different?
Sosa and McGwire happened to play in the same division. Certain moments came together like a perfect movie script. McGwire hit number 62 against the Cubs in the bottom 4th inning on September 8th. Maris also hit his record home run in the bottom of the 4th. McGwire rose to the occasion with everyone watching. The 1998 season was so much more, particularly for Chicago Cubs fans.
It started with the tragic passing of long-time broadcaster Harry Caray. He was the voice of Cubs baseball for my entire life. Harry was also famous for singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for every home game. A new era of Cubs baseball had started with guest conductors for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and Harry’s son Chip Caray would take over calling the games with Steve Stone.
Sammy Sosa’s career exploded to new heights when he hit 20 home runs in June of 1998. Yes, 20 home runs in one month. That is still a major league record and will probably never be broken. For context, Sosa hit only 35 home runs the previous year. Sosa even played more games in 1997.
For the majority of the season, Sosa was playing catch up. Few remember that there was a short window when Sosa was in the lead. This motivated McGwire to take the record to a new level.
Putting the record to the side, the Cubs were in a playoff race. They would ultimately squeak in by beating the Giants in a one-game Wild Card playoff. Being too young to remember 1989, this was the first time I would see the Cubs in the playoffs. Kerry Wood was the star rookie who stuck out a record-tying 20 batters in one game early in the season. Cubs fans had a lot to be excited about.
Mark McGwire Defending His Raw Ability
McGwire admitted to using PEDs years later, and it was these which helped him land a job in baseball. He has said in interviews that he regrets using, mainly because he believes he could have broken the record without cheating. I’m afraid Long Gone Summer will fall into the trap of the Lance film – the justification of “well, everybody was doing it.”
The hall of fame question will undoubtedly come up. McGwire’s career was cursed with injuries for most of his career. When watching Sportscenter highlights to see his home run totals each year, I knew if he could stay healthy, he would have a shot. 1998 was finally his year.
Will director AJ Schnack chronicle the allegations that McGwire had to deal with in the middle of 1998? In August, Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press questioned McGwire for having a bottle of Androstenedione in his locker. This was a legal substance, but I remember this was the first time I had doubts that maybe this wasn’t legitimate. It will be interesting to see how deep they go on the drug talk.
Sammy Sosa Wants To “Come Back” To Chicago
After Sosa got traded following the disappointing 2004 Cubs season, things were not the same between Chicago and Sosa. In 2003, Sosa broke his bat which would reveal that his bat was corked. He would be suspended for eight games in the middle of a playoff run. Sosa claimed that the bat was intended for batting practice. The excuses had only just begun.
In the last game of the 2004 season, Sosa left the clubhouse early. In Chicago, Cubs fan needed scapegoats (besides Steve Bartman) for massively disappointing 2003 & 2004 seasons. Sosa was our guy at that moment.
On a national level, Sosa took another PR hit at the Congressional steroid hearing in 2005. The secret was out. Some names had been named. Certain players would admit it but players like Sosa kept denying, which only soured fans even more. Sosa would have an interpreter at the hearing. English was not his first language, but he had done press interviews for years in English.
Most importantly, Sosa continues to tiptoe away from answering questions about steroid allegations to this day. This film will hopefully repair his image since he has been away from the mainstream media for a while now. Unlike McGwire and other steroid users, Sosa did not get a job in baseball.
Will the Cubs retire his number? They should, and Sosa really wants to be accepted in Chicago. Even with the Cubs finally winning the World Series in 2016, you would think this would be a done deal already. Long Gone Summer is a one night only release, so I doubt they will have time to improve the situation drastically unless Sosa admits to cheating.
Can Long Gone Summer repair baseball again after COVID-19? If it was ten episodes, maybe? MLB is still reeling from the Astros sign-stealing scandal and now there are more labor disputes between the players union and the owners. Hopefully, the film can spark the magic feeling of summer baseball.