The hashtag #LastNormalPhoto led participants on Twitter several weeks ago to share their final snapshots before the coronavirus pandemic upset life around the globe. People shared photographs of group gatherings, travel to distant locales, mask-free outings with friends — all from a more innocent time, before the Wuhan virus brought a new level of danger to even the most mundane tasks, and the human interactions we cherish.
The ESPN documentary “Long Gone Summer” provides a similar reminiscence of halcyon days prior to innocence lost. In chronicling the 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the film recounts a drama that brought an entire nation to its feet, and helped Americans rediscover baseball following the devastating players’ strike of 1994-95.
Yet the documentary falls short, for reasons having less to do with its cinematography than with the character of its actors. For good and for ill, hindsight has made manifest the flaws we did not see in 1998, even as they were hiding in plain view.
For the summer of 1998, all the elements necessary for high drama still exist — at least on paper. McGwire, the young phenom who set a rookie home run record in 1987, overcame several injury-plagued seasons to hit 58 home runs in 1997. From the start of the following season, reporters gave McGwire a puncher’s chance to break Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs, set in 1961.
By contrast, few casual baseball fans had even heard of the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, much less considered him a threat to Maris’ home run record — until the slugger hit 20 home runs in June 1998 (a record for a single month) to put himself in the conversation. The more gregarious and charismatic Sosa complemented the more reserved McGwire, who often chafed under the intense spotlight from media and fans around the world.
The scenes in August and September 1998 played out in a way Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t even countenance. McGwire, on the same team Maris played for in his final years, embraced the Maris family in a way that finally gave the deceased slugger his due — because many in the baseball community had resented Maris for breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record 37 years earlier. McGwire and Sosa both praised each other for their feats, even as they pushed each other to excel in a friendly but fierce competition.
The dramatic climax, if not the end, of the home run chase, came over the Labor Day weekend, when the Cubs and Cardinals met for a two-game set at St. Louis’ old Busch Stadium. McGwire’s record-breaking 62nd homer brought venerable Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck to tears — and earned McGwire a hug from Sosa, his fellow competitor. McGwire in turn gave Maris’ children hugs of his own, in tribute to their late father.
The pièce de résistance of the scene: 22-year-old Cardinals groundskeeper Tim Forneris, who approached the slugger with the words, “Mr. McGwire, I think I have something that belongs to you” — whereupon Forneris voluntarily gave back to McGwire the 62nd home run ball worth millions.
While the drama seemed real — the fans’ adulation and interest certainly qualified — the 1998 home run chase, like that entire era in baseball, had a too-good-to-be-true quality to it. Early in the season, McGwire had said breaking the single-season home run record remained a hypothetical scenario until a player had 50 home runs in September. But in 1998, both McGwire and Sosa had 55 home runs before September’s play even began. Both players ended up shattering Maris’ record, with McGwire hitting 70 homers and Sosa 66.
McGwire had faced a steroid-related controversy in August 1998, when he admitted taking androstenedione, a then-legal substance, but one which the National Football League and International Olympic Committee had already banned. At the time, then-Commissioner Allan “Bud” Selig and union head Donald Fehr issued a statement calling the allegations an “inappropriate” distraction — a testament to the extent to which Major League Baseball, and many of its fans, would ignore inconvenient truths.
But the truth would not remain hidden forever. After tearful testimony before the House Oversight Committee during its 2005 hearings on steroid use in baseball, McGwire admitted in 2010 that he had used performance-enhancing drugs off and on for nearly a decade, including in 1998, the year he broke Maris’ record. While Sosa has never spoken publicly about steroid use, the New York Times reported in 2009 that he had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs six years earlier.
During his 2010 confession, McGwire said, “I wish I had never played during the steroid era” — an ironic statement, as his feats helped define the era. Some observers even speculate that the 1998 home run chase, and the accolades it brought McGwire and Sosa, prompted San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who hit but 37 home runs that season, to embrace steroids. Bonds later broke McGwire’s record, hitting 73 home runs in 2001.
The records set by Bonds and McGwire, like others from the steroid era, remain subject to intense controversy. In the documentary’s final segment, Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Costas tries to untangle the knot by delineating the separate realms of morality and authenticity.
Just because a player engages in immoral, or even illegal, conduct off the field does not make his on-field feats illegitimate. Conversely, likable and personable players — including McGwire and Sosa, whom America fell in love with during the 1998 home run chase — can through their on-field behavior undermine the integrity of the game, as many did during the steroid era.
In “A Separate Peace,” John Knowles writes of a tree that resembles “[t]he giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demotion the old giants have become pygmies while you were looking the other way.”
“Long Gone Summer” performs the same task as the tree in Knowles’ work, transforming the giants of 1998 — shrunken both literally and figuratively by the end of the steroid era — into, if not pygmies, then human beings to be examined critically rather than deified on a pedestal.
“Long Gone Summer” will re-air on ESPN, and can be found on the ESPN app.