ESPN has made their mark over the last decade by making sports documentaries that tell fantastic stories, often going deeper than fans could ever expect. The bar was set even higher this spring when The Last Dance was released. The epic 10 part series was “must watch” viewing for sports fans and became event television, with the conversations happening on Twitter bringing the documentary to another level. During The Last Dance, ESPN announced that they had more documentaries coming out. Expectations were extremely high for Long Gone Summer, the documentary that would go in about the epic 1998 Home Run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. And then the documentary was released on Sunday…and it sucked ferociously.
I should have known it was going to be an epic pile of shit when, early in the film, writer TJ Quinn verbally felated the entire St. Louis Cardinals fan base by saying, in essence that the fans were so smart that they never cheered for fly balls unless they were home runs and always knew about exactly what was happening in the game at all times. That is some next level shaft lickery right there. National writers have always touted St. Louis as having the best baseball fans because….there is literally no metric. It’s a lazy narrative perpetuated every few years to make fans of teams on the coasts look like bandwagon fans, leisurely viewers of the game who just didn’t get “it” like St. Louis fans, humble and holy in the midwesternness.
On behalf of every other fan of every other team in baseball, I speak on behalf of all of us when I say BLOW ME. Surely, a film maker who wanted to tell a good, honest story would avoid these pitfalls. And director AJ Schnack is from ((checks notes)) just across the river from St. Louis. Aww shit, this thing was destined to go tits up from the get to.
In fact, it doesn’t actually do the movie justice to call it anything more than a Mark McGwire reclamation project in the major public eye. Mark has already apologized for steroids and returned to baseball as a hitting instructor with multiple teams, and has been added to the Cardinals Hall of Fame. McGwire is also endlessly uninteresting. That didn’t stop the film maker from spending the lion share of the time of the movie talking about Mark, while Sosa, the much more polarizing and interesting person in the movie, is more or less a secondary figure.
No matter how you look at it, some facts exist: Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr, coming off huge home run seasons the prior year, were looked at, as all players are when they hit the rarefied air 50 home runs, as people who could potentially break Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a season. Griffey, it should be noted, ended up with 56 home runs on the season in 1998, which is coincidentally about how long the entire documentary spent talking about him. Sammy Sosa wouldn’t arrive on the national scene until late June, as he was finishing up breaking the record for most home runs in a single month, with 20.
The underlying thing that the documentary conveniently ignored was the underlying issue: steroid use. While the movie makes people believe that steroids only started when it was discovered in Mark McGwires locker, the truth is that it had been an issue for years previously. Unfortunately, that didn’t work with the narrative that was being attempted.
As the season progressed, it became obvious that as Mark McGwire bristled at the media, Sammy Sosa was thriving under the circumstances. He loved the spotlight. He still does. Sammy loves to talk. McGwire has always been more likely to give you canned answers. So obviously it was a great idea to spend almost the entire documentary focusing on Mark than Sammy.
1998 was incredibly important to baseball, and the hypocrisy of the powers that be, the media, and others is amplified now as much as ever, as feelings towards the stuff the players has changed, and even the effectiveness of them has been debated. The people who tend to take a holier than thou attitude towards the players of the steroid era definitely never had to play through the grind of a 162 season, over and over. Dating back to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, they would take amphetamines to give themselves enough energy to get through the day. More modern players would use things like HGH to increase the recovery of their aches and pains and build muscle. Steroids never made anyone better at hitting a fastball. But it kept our favorite players on the field.
Back to the documentary, director Schnack was very obviously coming from a biased place. He did everything possible to minimize the accomplishments of Sosa and Griffey Jr. He turned St. Louis into the center of the sports universe, and turned Chicago into a stock footage after thought. He wrote a very lopsided love story about the team he grew up with and the player he idolized.
Only in the final twenty minutes of the movie were steroids even brought about as a talking point. Given the opportunity to put into focus where the sport was and what they steroid use did for the game to make it important in the eyes of sports fans, or to even juxtapose that with the backlash, the senate testimony, the anonymous New York Times leek, the players that would be suspended after…nothing. Not a damn thing. Not when the entire movie is about how swell of a guy Mark McGwire is.
The ultimate failing of the movie is putting it in the hands of someone who never intended to tell an even handed story. There were so many people who could have painted a great story out of this. That could have made it feel like something to those fans who lived through the summer of 1998. That could have brought every other aspect together. Someone that wouldn’t have spent the entirety of the movie as a propaganda film for St. Louis and McGwire himself.
For what it’s worth, Sosa has said since the documentary premiered that he is fine with his portrayal, and is just happy that people still care. He says that he has a great life and would very much like to be a part of the Cubs family again, someday. BTW, you want a more interesting story than was provided in this documentary? Sosa’s fall from grace in Chicago is a great tale in character assassination and character suicide. The animosity of those final years have rolled along for so long that the current owners of the Chicago Cubs refuse to invite Sosa back to Wrigley Field. You want to know how much coverage was put into that? A single pop up at the end of the movie, taking up maybe 10 seconds of air time.
There is very little to enjoy about baseball, currently. The owners are trying to murder the league they own teams in. The players have been screwed over relentlessly over the spring and into the summer. Every other sport is coming back this summer, come hell or high water. This was all everyone had for baseball this summer. It’s a shame it had to be ruined by someone who had no intention of telling the story well in the first place.