MLB, Reviews

Long Gone Summer review: A love letter to when home runs healed baseball’s wounds

Long Gone Summer is a love letter to a time and place in baseball history, chronicling Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s 1998 home run race.

Contrary to its title, Long Gone Summer opens with an eerily modern feeling.

The film begins – after a brief intro on the beauty of home run balls from a prominent collector – with baseball in a state of disarray that is all too familiar right now.

In the aftermath of the 1994-95 MLB strike we see sports radio callers complaining about “spoiled” millionaire players and billionaire owners arguing over money, a line of argument that rightly or wrongly has been trotted out plenty during the league’s current labor standoff.

When then-President Bill Clinton says, “It’s just a few hundred folks trying to figure out how to divide nearly $2 billion, they aught to be able to figure that out in time for the rest of America to enjoy this baseball season,” boy does that feel familiar.

Long Gone Summer, ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” documentary which premiers Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, arrives as MLB fans watch their sport hurtle toward another work stoppage, be it this year or next.

While it’s unclear how well modern baseball can recover from an ugly labor battle, the way it managed to do so in the ’90s is of course the focus of the documentary. After setting the stage with the darkness of 1994-95, Long Gone Summer moves forward a couple years to its main concern: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the summer of 1998 and the home run battle between the two which helped bring fans back to the game.

Any fan sitting down to watch Long Gone Summer on Sunday – a day after owners and players traded nasty letters and a day before the league could mandate a season – will surely feel the dread of a sport that once again inflicting harm on itself. It also makes the nostalgia of seeing full bleachers and beer-drinking fans all the more powerful for modern fans stuck at home.

The story is well known, McGwire and Sosa racing to break Roger Maris’ famous record of 61 home runs in a season, but director AJ Schnack’s loving look back does enough to make it worth revisiting.

“I was surprised at how much stuff I hadn’t remembered or maybe had remembered slightly wrongly,” Schnack said in an interview with FanSided.

History is written by the victors, as the saying goes, and McGwire has always occupied a larger place in the game’s consciousness than Sosa. The same goes for Long Gone Summer to some extent.

The film does lean toward McGwire, not entirely unexpected whether because he ended up finishing with 70 home runs to Sosa’s 66, his seemingly greater openness with the filmmakers, his work in the game since retiring, or even Schnack’s personal feelings as a Cardinals fan.

The foundation for how the two are remembered can be seen in their modern recollections of each other at the time.

“Mark he was everything,” Sosa says. “The golden boy lets say. But the only thing I guess I have more that he don’t have was my charisma. I was just happy to be there”

McGwire was already a Bash Brother, a World Series champ, a larger-than-life star who hit 58 the year the before and came in with all the expectations, while Sosa was seen as the fun-loving one pushing him.

What did McGwire know about Sosa before 1998?

“I knew he played in our league,” McGwire recalls. “But I didn’t really know anything about him. I didn’t know anything about Sammy Sosa until he hit 20 home runs in June.

Cubs fans hoping for more Sosa may be disappointed it doesn’t go deeper on Sammy, but that charisma still gets to shine, and they can hope that Sosa talking to Schnack is a first step to him being welcomed back to Wrigley.

On the other hand, what Schnack gets from McGwire’s interviews is more introspective.

McGwire talks about writing his goals down and locking them in a safe before the season. His anxiety about being singled out as a star in a team sport. The two security guards with him at all times. We see the levity Sosa brought to their joint press conferences when the entire world was watching them. McGwire even asked to sit out the final game of the season because he was so mentally and physically exhausted, only to hit two more homers after being told by Tony LaRussa that he had to play.

Like McGwire’s 62nd homer, Long Gone Summer clears the fence but isn’t exactly a moonshot.

The film also takes a few moments to point out Ken Griffey Jr.’s forgotten place in the story of 1998. Until Sosa broke out in June, Griffey Jr. was the one keeping up closest with McGwire and for a time it was a three-man race.

“What is meant to be is meant to be. If it was meant to be Griffey, it would have been Griffey,” modern-day Sosa says with a smile. “But God picked me.”

The brief final act of the film takes on the elephant in the room: steroids.

“In retrospect there was a price to pay for it,” Bob Costas says.

While there had been a minor mention earlier to discuss in-season reporting on McGwire’s “Andro” use, the final portion of the film tackles steroids from a reputational perspective.

“I told them both upfront that we were going to have to deal with it,” Schnack told FanSided. “That people wouldn’t take the film seriously if we didn’t address that aspect and the fact that this event took place during the steroid era.

“I think it’s very different between the two of them. Mark has I think spoken honestly about what he did, why he did it, when he did it. Sammy feels that he has stated for the record in front of congress that he never did it and I think he finds the ongoing questioning a little disrespectful I think to him and his career. I think just the fact that he has to discuss it is a bit annoying.”

But in the way that the beginning of the film feels prescient in a macro sense, the ending is largely uninterested in expanding on the Steroid Era as a whole.

Barry Bonds makes a brief appearance, as we see him eventually breaking McGwire’s record, but Schnack said he didn’t want to venture into the stories of Bonds or Canseco. “It’s like the second you start really dealing with that then we’re in Last Dance territory, we’re doing 10 hours,” the director said.

In the end, Long Gone Summer is a narrowly focused love letter to a specific moment in baseball history. It’s not concerned with examining the ways 1994-95 foreshadowed baseball’s current fate or the legacy of 1998.

Much like that summer, it’s all about the memories.

One of the fun bits of trivia that we’re reminded of is how McGwire’s record-breaking 62nd home run was actually his shortest of the season, 341 feet, just scraping over the wall in the left-field corner.

Like McGwire’s 62nd homer, Long Gone Summer clears the fence but isn’t exactly a moonshot.

For more TV and movies, explore the Entertainment section at For more baseball coverage, visit the MLB section.

Next: Long Gone Summer director talks McGwire, Sosa, steroids and more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *