Long Yawn Bummer: Repurposed Mark McGwire Documentary Fails to Capture Energy of ’98 Home Run Race

I have an 11-year-old son who will pivot our conversation from baseball practice to Fortnite with no warning, so I know a little something about incongruous jump-cuts. Even with that experience, I was not prepared for the jarring shifts from B-roll footage of Wrigley Field in 2019 to images of Sammy Sosa smashing home runs over chain-link fencing 21 years earlier. Nor was I prepared for just how little a documentary sold as the story of the ’98 home run race would actually stay true to that idea.

Like a routine dental cleaning that results in a filling, Long Gone Summer was appointment viewing I wish I’d have rescheduled. It was ordering an arcade cabinet from a Facebook add only to receive a plastic toddler necklace in the mail a month later.

Some of obvious production flaws and questionable narrative choices can be chalked up to a compressed timeline caused by pushing up the film’s release by three months or so. The void of live sports and the overwhelming success of The Last Dance understandably created a hunger for more content, but it became clear after a couple of commercial breaks that Long Gone Summer was not going to satiate the general public.

Many of the issues stemmed from the intent of the documentary, which appears to have been repurposed from its original life as a Mark McGwire image rehabilitation project. The narrative maintained such a tight grip on Cardinals slugger’s pursuit of Roger Maris’s home run record that it completely choked the life out of the bigger story of the energy that summer.

Sosa and McGwire were inextricably linked by a four-month period that began with the former’s 20-homer June, becoming a magnetic odd couple that pulled fans back to baseball by becoming bigger than the sport itself. The Yankees won 114 games and dominated the playoffs that year, but does anyone outside of the Bronx even think about that when discussing the ’98 season? Hell, with 26 other titles, even many Yankees fans might default to the home run race.

While it’s admittedly unfair to compare LGS to TLD, both employed similarly nonlinear scripts with decidedly different results. The story of Michael Jordan and the Bulls jumped from their final championship season in 1997-98 season to earlier in the star’s life and basketball career, branching off to tell the stories of other people in his orbit, but it was all in the service of moving the story forward. The ill-fated baseball doc, on the other hand, bounced around like a pinball game with a wobbly leg.

Were I to re-cut the film, I’d spend more time setting up the summer of ’98 by talking about the strike four years earlier and the damage it did to Major League Baseball’s image. Then I’d get into the respective backgrounds of the two players and how their career paths led them to that season. McGwire was a stoic behemoth, pushing forward with the inexorable force of a glacier. Sosa was a frenetic thunderstorm, electrifying all those around him and occasionally setting a fire here and there.

I’d also get a little deeper on McGwire’s then-rookie record of 49 home runs in 1987, which tied the Cubs’ Andre Dawson for the major league lead. Though it wasn’t seen as nearly the duel that would ensue 11 years later, the idea of squaring off against a Cubs MVP would add a fun little wrinkle and sort of tee up the battle with Sosa as the conclusion of some sort of karmic journey.

The rising home run numbers and ensuing publicity would drive the bulk of the film, with interviews focused around the incredible energy Sosa and McGwire generated. And not just in St. Louis and Chicago, but across the country and beyond. They were national news on a nightly basis.

The one choice I largely agree with is the coverage of the PED aspect, which stretches far beyond the two primary subjects of this documentary. That could easily take up the final 20 minutes or so, but I think it’s imperative to note how MLB and then-commissioner Bud Selig were wholly complicit in the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs across that entire era. The league made billions as a result of turning a blind eye, then made those players pariahs.

That’s still the case for Sosa and the Cubs, despite the fact that his exploits came well prior to current ownership taking over. What’s more, the Cubs became the hottest ticket in baseball during Sosa’s incredible run in the late 90’s and early 00’s and they’ve maintained the most expensive prices in the National League for the last 16 years.

I understand the complicated nature of his relationship to the team and how many fans can’t get past what they feel is a legacy of unrepentant cheating and quitting, but Sosa has contributed more to the Cubs’ revenue in the last two decades than any other individual player. Probably more than any five players combined. Ah, but now I’m making this too much about Sosa, which is the opposite of the film’s biggest problem.

Had it just been presented as the story of Mark McGwire’s legacy in St. Louis, Lone Gone Summer probably would have been perfectly fine. Even if it had still lacked a little verve, the bias would have been more appropriate and there wouldn’t have been as many inexplicable shots of modern-day Wrigley. While the appeal would not have been as broad, the smaller target audience would have been far more amenable to the tale being told.

Instead, ESPN pushed too hard to capitalize on the current environment and ended up with a disingenuous product that failed to hit its mark. That’s really saying something when you consider just how desperate baseball fans are for any kind of feel-good story these days. Though it probably won’t happen, I’d love to see the filmmakers take another crack at this by eliminating the recent footage and crafting a more cohesive narrative. There’s a compelling story to be told and fans deserve better.

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