‘Long Gone Summer’ Whiffs on the 1998 Home Run Chase

This ESPN “30 for 30” documentary chronicles that historic summer when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled for baseball immortality. But it ends up turning the home run into an oddly boring achievement.

In all of sports, no feat is more stirring than someone hitting a home run. Bicycle kicks and slam dunks take incredible athletic ability, but there’s something about the sight (and the sound) of a ball flying off a bat, landing in the stands some 400 feet away, that never ceases to amaze me. Maybe it’s because the ball is so small, and the outfield wall so far away, that makes the act seem majestic. When a home run is hit, fans look on in wonder, almost in disbelief, as they watch the ball fly and fly and finally disappear. Of all the things I miss right now about baseball, that may be chief among them. 

So why was I bored by Long Gone Summer, a documentary almost entirely devoted to men hitting dingers? 

Retelling the story of the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the latest ESPN 30 for 30 film (which premieres Sunday) is jam-packed with home runs, but the result is tedious rather than exhilarating. Partly it’s because of what we now know about that historic summer, which many praised at the time as helping resurrect baseball’s image after the disastrous 1994 strike. But mostly, Long Gone Summer doesn’t really contemplate the magic of the athletic accomplishment it’s ostensibly celebrating. In this documentary, if you’ve seen one homer, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Directed by AJ Schnack and featuring a score from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Long Gone Summer boasts a warm, nostalgic vibe, offering separate extensive interviews with McGwire (who played for the St. Louis Cardinals) and Sosa (a member of the Cardinals’ longtime rival the Chicago Cubs) as they reminisce about that season. But in an early sign of Long Gone Summer’s misjudged approach, the conversation is about the home run chase and just about nothing else. There’s almost no discussion of a pennant race or even the division standings. Everything is focused on the two men’s attempt to break the home run record, which at that point was held by Roger Maris, who hit 61 in 1961, topping the 60 Babe Ruth socked 34 years earlier. Home runs are an exciting, unpredictable element of baseball — you never know when one might happen. But when they’re the only thing, like they are in Long Gone Summer, things can get a little monotonous.

Schnack brings in plenty of sportswriters and on-air personalities, like Bob Costas and former Cubs broadcaster Chip Carry (grandson of beloved Cubs sportscaster Harry), to provide the proper historical context. At the time, Maris’ record seemed unbreakable, but going into the 1998 season, McGwire, a prodigious home run hitter, seemed like a worthy candidate to smash that figure — as did Ken Griffey Jr., the game’s brightest young talent. But as the year went along, Griffey started to fade as McGwire continued to be red hot, and then came Sosa, who had never put together a full season as impressive as he would that year, including hitting a mind-boggling 20 homers in June alone. Soon, McGwire and Sosa, although their teams rarely faced each other, were virtually squaring off every night, each of them in pursuit of 61 to see who would be crowned the new home run champ.

You couldn’t ask for a stronger study in contrasts than McGwire (the towering, soft-spoken, bashful Southern California kid) and Sosa (the shorter, effusive charmer from the Dominican Republic), who came from very different economic and cultural climates to engage in this dinger duel. And if Long Gone Summer is any indication, they haven’t changed much since 1998, with McGwire’s aw-shucks modesty a fitting complement to Sosa’s megawatt personality. Schnack refrains from pitting the two men against each other — you don’t root for one over the other in Long Gone Summer but he fails to make either player particularly compelling. It’s to the filmmaker’s credit that he doesn’t invent a phony conflict between McGwire and Sosa — although Sosa’s impoverished upbringing, in comparison to McGwire’s far-more-comfortable childhood, might have been an area worth exploring — but the documentary’s cheery two-great-guys-save-baseball narrative starts to feel a little bland.

Obviously, the appeal of a movie like this is getting to revisit all those moonshots that the two men launched in 1998, and indeed we see plenty of highlights. But divorced from the drama of meaningful games, a home run is… nice …but not especially thrilling. The reason why we can’t get enough of, say, Carlton Fisk’s homer in Game Six of the 1975 World Series or Kirk Gibson’s Game One smash in 1988 is that there are significant stakes attached. (A season is on the line; a player’s legacy might be defined in that one moment.) A random homer in an unimportant game in May just can’t compare. There’s no electricity attached.

In case you aren’t aware which player came out on top, I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that, as a lifelong Cardinal fan, I was surprised how little Long Gone Summer’s final stretch affected me. The last few days of that season were incredibly stressful, with McGwire and Sosa going neck-and-neck, both of them having passed Maris’ mark but now competing for the single-season crown. But as much as I love home runs, there seemed something weirdly empty about recalling these men’s pursuit of history. Homers are stunning, but they’re only part of a baseball game, which also features stolen bases, incredible defensive plays and managerial strategy. Elevating these guys’ chase to surpass a specific number — albeit one of the most hallowed in baseball — Long Gone Summer ends up reducing the complexity and beauty of the game. Homers are great because they happen in concert with a lot of other things. This movie is like a rock show with nothing but guitar solos. 

Is that what the summer of 1998 was like? 

I was alive then, and so I know for a fact that there was real suspense in McGwire and Sosa’s home run battle. But that suspense came from not knowing when either of the two players would erupt, and so ESPN would tune in to their at-bats, on the off chance that we’d be able to sneak a glimpse of history in the making. But in Long Gone Summer, that chase feels like the NBA dunk contest or batting practice — too much of a cool thing stripped of the context that makes it so amazing.

Of course, anyone who remembers that season knows its aftermath, and eventually Long Gone Summer reaches its extended coda, where the revelation of players’ steroid use comes out, causing fans and commentators to see the 1998 chase in a completely different light. In the documentary, neither McGwire nor Sosa is especially interesting when asked about steroids, and at this late date, I’m not sure I really expect or need them to be insightful about their decision to take performance-enhancing drugs. But I confess that maybe knowing how this epic home run derby ultimately ended — with both players clouded by scandal — made me look at their dingers with muted enthusiasm.

I’m not one of those “Steroid users are immoral monsters who tarnished the sanctity of the game” purists, but in Long Gone Summer, as each ball flew off their bats and over the wall, I couldn’t help but consider what was going on in baseball at the time — and also ponder how insignificant these individual records really are. That we were so wrapped up in this chase 22 years ago now seems somewhat silly — but, then again, last year fans lost our minds over major league teams collectively breaking the record for most homers in a season. We can’t get enough dingers. 

While watching Long Gone Summer, I was reminded of that famous 1999 Nike ad, in which pitcher Greg Maddux spoke those immortal words: “Chicks dig the long ball.” Going back to watch the commercial now, I had forgotten that Maddux’s comment was in response to the fact that Heather Locklear is gushing over McGwire showing off his stuff in the batting cage. Really, we all dig the long ball. But like that Nike ad, Long Gone Summer turns that incredible feat into a pretty dull exhibition.