June 14 brings more than just Flag Day this year, as it marks the debut of the new ESPN ‘30 for 30’ film on the national pastime, "Long Gone Summer." The home run chase of 1998, when both Mark McGwire (70 home runs) and Sammy Sosa (66 HR) surpassed Roger Maris' (61 in 1961) single season record is the subject. Unfortunately, director A.J Schnack waits far too long to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and once he gets there, provides only surface-level treatment.
The film's running time is one hour and 43 minutes, but it's a full hour and a half before performance enhancing drugs are even mentioned. Apparently, Schnack isn't interested in telling the complete story of the '98 home run chase, opting instead to revisit the time when most of us experienced ignorant bliss about the situation.
Yes, we could all use a feel-good story right now. Since February, the country has endured a stock market crash on par with 1929, a pandemic like 1918, unemployment reminiscent of 1933 and civil unrest rivaling 1968. But two baseball players turning their bodies into human science projects and tarnishing the integrity of the game isn't it. With extensive interviews of both McGwire and Sosa, this is really just a long-form piece of access journalism, with neither man being asked about steroid usage prior to the end of the documentary.
The results are expected: McGwire again comes clean and owns up while Sosa remains evasive and stubborn. The former comes off much better than the latter, which is ironic given how Sosa had more charisma than McGwire during their salad days.
[More from Paul Banks: The Steroids Wing in the Baseball Hall of Fame.]
McGwire, whose tendency to be cantankerous with the media, receives kid gloves treatment while Sosa's smoking gun of cheating, including the corked bat incident of 2003 is only mentioned in passing. Also omitted in “Long Gone Summer” is any mention of Sosa bailing on his team, and getting caught lying about it on the final day of the 2004 season. It also leaves out how Sosa's sometimes vainglorious and solipsistic behavior affected team chemistry to the point that someone (still unidentified to this day) destroyed his beloved boom box after he left.
The movie's most edifying moment comes via ESPN investigative reporter T.J. Quinn, who notes that one can judge the baseball acumen of a team's fanbase by their behavior on fly balls. McGwire had St. Louis Cardinals fans watching the ball, instead of the outfielder, says Quinn, who adds that an educated fanbase seemed to lose their knowledge of small ball. The film also contains several scenes of St. Louis "best fans in baseball" propaganda, and these portions of the film are almost unwatchable to anyone outside of Missouri.
Quinn's micro-level point, about the home run chase diminishing baseball’s intelligence quotient, applies to this film as a whole. The steroid-fueled sluggers broke the rules, and then suffered the consequences of being left out of Cooperstown. It's a just outcome, so there was no need for a film attempting to whitewash what happened 22 years ago. Rating: Two stars, out of a possible five.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly contributes to WGN TV, Sports Illustrated, Chicago Now and SB Nation.