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30 for 30 Review: ESPN’s ‘Long Gone Summer’ covers familiar ground

We’ve already watched The Last Dance, so why not another ESPN documentary about the other biggest sports story of 1998? Another movie that allows us to watch a sport that we’re not able to watch otherwise? 

Long Gone Summer, the latest film in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, goes through the story of 1998 when the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa spent the season vying to break Roger Maris’ record for 61 home runs in a season, which at that point had stood for 37 years. The chase would captivate the nation, as both men ended up besting Maris, with McGwire ultimately winning the race with 70 homers. 

The McGwire/Sosa battle helped baseball finally recover its popularity, four years after a strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series. Of course, just a few years later, it became clear that baseball’s power surge was made possible by the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs, leading both McGwire and Sosa to be dragged before Congress, and earning the sort of long-term disgrace that’s kept them both out of the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

The 30 for 30 installments, directed by A.J. Schnack, is a fairly straightforward recounting of that year’s home run chase, complete with interviews with both McGwire and Sosa, as well as various announcers, journalists, and the sons of both McGwire and Maris.  Bob Costas, available to ESPN now that he no longer works for NBC, is on hand as a valuable talking head, as he was in The Last Dance, although political columnist George Will – whose skills as a baseball commentator have long been seriously overrated – is on board as well. 

Overall, Long Gone Summer is an entertaining documentary, although it doesn’t break a ton of new ground, and it’s kind of perfunctory in the way it deals with the steroid question. 

The film, two hours with commercials, accurately conveys just how exciting all this was at the time, especially in the closing days of the season when the two sluggers traded the lead on a daily basis. It makes fine use of the classic game footage, including some great announcer calls by the legendary Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck. 

Long Gone Summer mostly avoids most of the most tiresome cliches of 30 for 30 documentaries. Nothing about St. Louis or Chicago being “tough” or “a blue-collar town.” 

There’s also absolutely no involvement of celebrity fans of either team, except for an appearance by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, who had the odd habit of cornering the market on every significant home run ball from the home run chase. (A great documentary, Up For Grabs, was made in 2004 about the two men fighting over Barry Bonds’ record-breaking home run ball from 2001.) There’s also footage of former President George W. Bush, joking about how, as the owner of the Texas Rangers, he signed off on the ill-advised trade of Sosa for Harold Baines. Then again, Baines is in the Hall of Fame, while Sosa isn’t. 

The steroid revelations are only dealt with in the documentary’s final 15 minutes, and in a way that’s sort of rushed. We see the footage of the players testifying before Congress, with McGwire evading questions and Sosa seeming to temporarily forget how to speak English.  McGwire, years ago, copped to having used PEDs, although Sosa never has, and it’s been reported that his estrangement from the Cubs organization will continue until he does. In the documentary, Sosa asks why he keeps getting being asked about it, when “everyone in that era did it.” 

Thankfully, Long Gone Summer avoids the sort of moralizing that’s been way too much a part of most of the discussion of the McGwire/Sosa story, especially since the revelations about steroids. The ludicrous notion that baseball had, in the PED scandal “lost its innocence”- after a century of segregation, not to mention decades of baseball players being absolute degenerates – is thankfully left out of this one. And it’s mentioned by more than one person that, while most steroids were illegal to own at the time, the drugs were not officially banned by baseball until a few years after 1998. 

Nevertheless, the way Long Gone Summer handles the subject feels perfunctory, as if they felt they had to bring it up but didn’t want to devote too much attention to it. 

Overall, Long Gone Summer is mostly successful, even though it would have been better off devoting more energy to the reckoning faced by its subjects.

Written By

Simon is a sometimes writer and podcaster living in Toronto.

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