Documentary Review: ESPN’s “Long Gone Summer”

It was “the summer that saved baseball,” but what do we remember of it?

There was the majestic home run stroke of Mark McGwire, the joyous bounce of Sammy Sosa, urging balls over the fence as he cleared the batter’s box — the grins, the hugs, the good-sportsmanship, the thrill of “chasing the record.”

The summer of ’98 was months of following the best “feel good” sports story in decades for a game four years removed from a dispiriting, fan-repelling strike.

On TV and the radio, it was a nightly parade of epic home run calls from the announcer’s booth.

“To the track, to the WALL, it AIN’T coming back!”

“Get out GET OUT!

“A SMOKER into the left field seats!”

“Calling air traffic control…”

“Look-a there, LOOK-a there, heading for Planet MARIS!”

Mobs gathered on Waveland Ave behind Wrigley Field, the faithful wept and cheered in America’s most baseball savvy city, St. Louis. It’s all burned into the memory, even if we’ve almost tried to forget it.

This was the summer of Sosa, McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. (“The Chosen One”) chasing the 37 year-old major league single season record for hitting home runs, “61,” set by Roger Maris in 1961. “Long Gone Summer,” the latest ESPN “30-for-30” documentary, takes us back there.

Director AJ Schnack (the political films “Caucus” and “Convention”) and his interview subjects recall the giddy highs of this chase, which, let’s face it, was a lot of fun. He fills the screen with most of those involved (Griffey isn’t here) — managers, teammates and even the Busch Stadium groundskeeper, who wound up on David Letterman before that summer was through. Legions of sportswriters and sportscasters tell stories, with Bob Costas, finally looking and sounding like the grand old baseball sage he’s been since his teens.

But always, hanging over it all, is the knowledge of what came later — the comeuppance, the realization that the “authenticity” (as Costas labels it) wasn’t there, and isn’t there now. In a game “where records matter,” the taint of PEDs, “performance enhancing drugs” all but erased this glorious year from memory and slapped asterisks, real-and-de facto, on all those dingers.

“In retrospect, there was a price to pay for it,” Costas intones in the film’s brief final act summary of the scandal that didn’t really unravel until years later.

But while it lasted…

Schnack leans heavily on the extensive TV coverage which included hours of footage of both the games, the homers, the players’ many many press interviews and lovely over-the-shoulder shots of the play-by-play announcers, including the nearly-peerless Jack Buck in St. Louis, as they beheld the spectacle of it all.

Buck, nearing retirement, burst into tears on air when the record was broken, as indeed did many another baseball fan. It was historic. And as the interviews (archival and fresh present day ones) show us the reserved, stoic McGwire and the effusive, buoyant Sosa not just bringing out the best in each other but having a veritable mutual love fest as they competed, it’s hard not to get choked-up all over again.

But of course, the hammer will come and the hammer will drop. The open-locker secret of McGwire’s magic ointments (not banned at the time), the suspiciously newly-bulked Sosa, coming out of nowhere to overtake Griffey and become the real challenger to McGwire and the record, all kind of spoiled it.

The fresh interviews for this show Sosa resisting admitting anything and McGwire trying not to dwell on it. Neither was banned from the game.

Still, we’re reminded by the historically-minded (columnist George Will) and by Roger Maris Jr., son of the long-dead Yankee slugger who lived in Mickey Mantle’s shadow, that Maris got death threats for chasing Ruth’s record in 1961 and lost his hair from the stress.

The only performance enhancing drugs Maris used were Philip Morris cigarettes, and maybe the occasional Schlitz. And the only shrine to Maris’s career is in his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota. For years it was tucked in a display case in corner of a local mall.

McGwire and Sosa aren’t in Cooperstown. Nor is current home run record holder and hat-size expander (a PED give-away) Barry Bonds.

But it’s fitting that “Long Gone Summer” feels truncated, cut off at the end. As glorious as the chase was at the time, as long as the “nobody cares” about PEDs ethos held the stage in the sport, among fans and sportscasters (and today’s online sports folk), the stain was still there. And it just grew.

There’s just enough here to remind us how we pushed memories of ’98 out of our baseball minds, a fleeting glimpse of Ferguson, Missouri (with a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt in it) emphasizes just how long ago it seems.

And dwelling on the cheaters, summoning up sympathy for their plight, wouldn’t seem fair.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Bob Costas, Ray Lankford, Tony LaRussa

Credits: Directed by AJ Schnack, music by Jeff Tweedy. An ESPN “30 for 30” (June 14) release.

Running time: 2:00

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