Major League Baseball’s 2020 season has been mothballed for months because of covid-19, and even when the truncated schedule begins in late July, it’s doubtful that, for health reasons, there will be any fans in attendance.
There’s no way that filmmaker AJ Schnack could have foreseen this when he started work on his “30 for 30” documentary “Long Gone Summer” a few years ago, but it may have proved a blessing in disguise. The documentary, which premiered Sunday on ESPN, recounts the 1998 home run derby between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of their arch-rivals the Chicago Cubs.
“Hopefully it will get people who have been missing baseball as much as I have a little bit of respite from the desert of no baseball,” Schnack said via phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I was so excited about getting back to see baseball and the opportunity to have this film playing at festivals and screenings leading up to our airdate,” he said of the strangeness of premiering a film in the surreal online film landscape of 2020.
“‘30 for 30’ is such an amazing group of films, and this just seemed like a natural story for them,” said Schnack. “Once we agreed to walk together and find out if we could get Mark and Sammy onboard, then it was a joint partnership [to] make this film.”
“Long Gone Summer” intercuts contemporary interviews with vintage clips of McGwire and Sosa duking it out as, over the ‘98 season, they sought to break Roger Maris’s single-season homerun record, which had stood for decades and was thought untouchable. To have not just one but two players on its tail in one summer was beyond extraordinary.
Schnack spent the better parts of 2017 and 2018 chatting with McGwire and Sosa about how he envisioned “Long Gone Summer,” and convincing both that he was the right person to make this film. And because Schnack grew up near St. Louis as a Cards fan but also had family members who were Cubs fans, he felt he could look at the subject as both fan and reporter—especially given what was learned later about both men using performance enhancers.
“I think we’re both enough past the season itself as well as some of the revelations that came in the aughts about steroid use that we can have a little more perspective overall, not just about what happened that season but what was happening in baseball generally,” the filmmaker said. “It [was] a time when Mark and Sammy were ready to sit down and talk at length for the first time about what they went through that season.”
In addition to Sosa and McGwire, Schnack’s film has talking heads including former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and several baseball writers. But key to it all was the two men whose home run race captivated a nation still reeling from the strike of 1994, when owners and players, rather than come to an agreement, simply walked off the diamond. Schnack said that the home run race between the two baseball giants four years later reached far beyond baseball itself, touching people around the world.
“As a storyteller, I want to take something you think you know and give you some other view of it, some other context,” Schnack said. “In this case, because of everything we [later] found out about that era, a lot of people’s memories of that summer are clouded.
“So the goal was to put you back in the middle of it…to show people who either forgot or weren’t even alive at the time what an amazing moment it was for baseball. I think there was enough distance from those various points in history that we could really dive back into it.”
Schnack interviewed McGwire at his home in Southern California, not far from where McGwire grew up (in one archival scene, when traded to the Cards, he said it was the only way he would have ever left someplace warm). McGwire claims he never sought to be in the public eye; he just wanted to hit home runs.
Sosa is interviewed in Miami, and still bears that famous smile he wore whenever he rounded the bases.
When asked if he was ever tempted to film the two men together, Schnack says it likely would have veered away from the purity of the documentary format he sought.
“If there was a reason for a reunion, whether they’re at a game together or something else, then that would have been interesting for me to film. But I just couldn’t quite wrap my brain around how to do it in a way that didn’t seem overly staged,” the director said. “I liked them having their own solo perspective and seeing [if] they have the same thoughts on that year, and did they have the same response to everything that happened.”
The chase of ‘98 cannot be discussed now without the attendant steroid scandal, which was so endemic throughout the sport that it resulted in a blockbuster report in 2002 that named many of baseball’s heaviest hitters, not just McGwire and Sosa.
“Baseball now has one of the best steroid and drug policies among any major sport,” said Schnack. “Once everything broke in the aughts, they really worked with players and owners to come up with a policy that was workable and I think made people feel better about that aspect of the game.
“And I think it points to what a ‘wild west’ it was in the nineties and how players didn’t really know what was allowed and not allowed. There were no penalties and no testing.”
Indeed, “Long Gone Summer” asks both McGwire and Sosa to reflect on their use of performance enhancers. Neither denies it, but they both stop short of overtly apologizing. Sosa, in particular, smiles and says he’d rather look forward at the life he has with his grandchildren.
“He was, as the film shows, the first Cub to hit thirty home runs and steal thirty bases in the same year,” Schnack said. “I think he would like to have his entire career recognized, both in Chicago and throughout baseball. It wasn’t just about this one year.
“I think he’s in a good spot, which is why I think it was a good time to make the film.”
Both of his subjects have seen a rough cut of “Long Gone Summer” and Schnack says their reactions have been positive.
“It’s a really big ask to say, hey, put your trust in me to tell this story. And I think both of them feel that they made the right choice,” he said. “And that’s gratifying.”
The new “30 for 30” film “Long Gone Summer” aired on ESPN on June 14th.