‘Long Gone Summer’ Review: ESPN’s Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa Doc Is a Big Ol’ Whiff
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For the past four decades, the all-star game of Major League Baseball has been preceded by the Home Run Derby. The best (-ish) sluggers in the sport step onto the plate and throw one long ball after the other into the stands of the spectators who play "ooo" and "ahh". While towering shots that threaten to break the stadium's lights provide fleeting entertainment, the problem with the Home Run Derby is that the largest long balls only appear in the wild. Home runs are best appreciated in the context of a game that often gains in importance due to a seasonal marathon or even a 100-year drought in the championship.
Check out Kirby Puckett's 1991 World Series walk-off shot that set the table for a twin title, or Kirk Gibson's one-legged Game 1 bomb that penned the 88 Dodgers in his only record appearance, or even Kyle Black, who Biggest home run hit ever, hit the yard three times in four games against the hated St. Louis Cardinals in the 2015 playoff series - a rival the Cubs had to win a year ago to win their first World Series in over a century.
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In the event that it is not painfully clear, I am a lifelong Cubs fan and therefore the ideal audience for a full-length documentary about the 1998 home run between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. A lot has changed since I stared at the heroic thugs race as a teenager to beat Roger Maris' single-season home run record. Steroid scandals and corked bats tarnish the purity of the players and a sport that still enjoys their virtue. But "Long Gone Summer" by A.J. Schnack hardly bothered to explain the relevance for modern fans and framed his memory with pink nostalgia. Despite (or because of) the participation of both athletes, McGwire's juicing license is only mentioned after 10 minutes, and Sosa's corked racket is not mentioned at all. (It is dropped in a coda just before the credits roll.) "Long Gone Summer" wants viewers to appreciate a feat of the past without considering whether it was invented - just watch the balls rise and don't ask too many questions.
Watching 136 home runs in 104 minutes may hold up for a live event like the derby, but it definitely doesn't work here. Starting with Todd McFarlane, who tries to justify his million dollar collection of McGwire and Sosa baseballs (as well as a disposable recording by Ted Louis's Frozen Custard from St. Louis), "Long Gone Summer" never escapes such a shallow argument with the story at hand, since it focuses disproportionately on the race itself. McGwire entered the 98 season with high expectations after completing 58 home races the year before, three less than Maris' record while Sosa and the Cubs were off the radar. Many of the document's talking sports journalists remember Ken Griffey Jr. as the expected challenger. He kept up early before he faded and ended the year with only 56 homers ... 10 less than Sosa and 14 less than McGwire's record pace.
Griffey's clean record of steroid use doesn't matter here. Schnack would rather give brief insights into the career of every player before 98 than into the scandal that changed everything a few years later. Most of the document's duration is rightly spent on McGwire - he finally broke the record, and as close as Sosa was to outperforming it, the Cubs right-wing player is mainly for charm and color. Nevertheless, it is confusing to see how little "Long Gone Summer" cares for her life or even her basic athletic qualities outside of season 98.
McGwire briefly talks about resigning himself to being a fly-ball home run hitter - instead of a five-tool ball player - but Schnack doesn't have any punch experts to highlight the difficulties of belting. "Seeing the ball, hitting the ball," McGwire quipped at one point, summarizing the assessment of his skills, although there was obviously more to it than that. Hitting a top league baseball is often described as the most difficult task in all sports, and it's not just a question of strength. Emphasizing each player's development as a hitter, as well as his natural talent, could have provided valuable context - especially if viewers spend 90 percent of the document wondering why the 1998 race is so important when both men (quite a bit) Security) have cheated their way to the top of the record books. (Not to mention that Barry Bonds surpassed McGwire's record anyway.)
Intermittent glimpses of the story, be it a review of Maris' quest to break Babe Ruth's original home run record, or listening to wildcards about the pandemonium that surrounds every punch, helps to destroy the feeling that you have one in advance recorded home run see derby, but this story requires more excavation - more reckoning with the past and what it means for the present. Schnack calls McGwires and Sosa's homerun race the event that saved baseball. This competition, which had left the MLB strike four years earlier, helped bring the fans back into the game. That may be true, but even if you put the scandal aside, it doesn't mean much in retrospect: in 2019 there were persistent complaints about too many home runs, in contrast to a record-breaking drop in visitor numbers. So if home runs are the savior of the game, why don't they still attract crowds today? Perhaps because the steroid scandal has affected many fans' relationship with the long ball?
"Long Gone Summer" doesn't care about the difficult questions, nor does it ask McGwire and Sosa. McGwire admitted to using steroids in 2010 and is now discussing similar issues. (He claims to have only taken it to help with recovery.) Sosa, who never admitted taking performance-enhancing medication, but was caught in the middle of the game with a screwed-up bat in 2003, still refuses to go there. He simply asks, "Why do they focus on me when everyone has [taken steroids] during this time?" Is that a selfish question? You bet. But how we're expecting players in the steroid era compared to the system that has encouraged widespread fraud is another area that "Long Gone Summer" does not get involved with.
Schnack's documentary tries to evade the more complicated aspects of the story to deliver the same "feel-good story" that fans wanted to see after the '98 strike, and given another endangered MLB season, it makes sense to try it yet to experience once Whatever glorious days we can. But if you stare at Mark McGwire's bulky physique or Sammy Sosa's suspicious racket for two hours, there's simply no way to put on blinders - not if you're looking for an authentic appreciation of her accomplishments. Nothing would make me happier than remembering this summer as pure, unadulterated fun in childhood or seeing my favorite player the way I did back then. But I can not. And "Long Gone Summer" offers little more than a flood of flat pop flies to convince myself that I should.
"Long Gone Summer" will air on Sunday June 14th at 9pm. ET on ESPN.
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