Updated: Aug 6, 2020
Author: Josh Fisher
Lately, I’ve been on a documentary-spree. Is my binging episodes of 30 for 30 influenced by the release of ‘The Last Dance’? Probably. As episode ten of “The Jordan Doc” commenced, four new 30 for 30’s were advertised: a two-part piece on Lance Armstrong, a piece on Bruce Lee, and another on Mark McGwire’s and Sammy Sosa’s chase to break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record. While I absolutely loved the Lance doc, it was the film about the home run chase that most excited me.
Without question, baseball is my favorite sport. It always has been, and no matter how much it’s broken my heart lately, it always will be. To that point, there is nothing in sports I detest more than the infamous steroid-era. The very thought of that period in baseball’s history, naturally evokes a disgusted head shake. Yet, my disdain for the select few who tarnished the game creating an intense controversy that still divides fans today, aside …I was pumped for this doc. My level of “pumped,” However, pales in comparison to my level of surprise, as the thoughts and feelings I had while watching ‘The Long Gone Summer’ truly shocked me.
The Sosa-McGwire chase, for me, is one of those moments in sports where you’re “alive,” but fairly incapable of grasping the magnitude of the moment. Do I remember anything from when I was four? Vaguely. Watching documentaries that cover topics pre-2000’s, though, provide me with an opportunity to live in the moments I missed. Documentaries of all kinds give us snapshots of a certain time often described by those who lived the moments. Colorful firsthand accounts like ‘Long Gone Summer’ allow us to experience events as if they occurred yesterday, transporting us back in time to moments that in many cases predated us. You get personal tid-bits and insights that the statistics from ‘baseball-reference.com’ can’t give you, from the roar of the crowd, inside scoops, the reminiscent emotions of the featured individuals, opinions of those who witnessed the actual events and of course selected footage of the games. It’s a chance to see the highlights within their historical reference.
Did I know McGwire cranked 70, and Sosa 66 prior to watching “Long Gone Summer”? Yes. I also knew that Sosa had won the MVP that year, and that it was Griffey Jr., not Sosa, who was expected to go toe-to-toe with McGwire in the chase for ’61.’ I knew the numbers; I knew them cold, and those smattering of facts and statistics formed my uninformed opinions. unfortunately, I knew nothing of how Mcgwire or Sosa felt as they pursued one of baseball’s most heralded records. More, I had no idea of what their teammates, coaches, the reporters, or fans felt and experienced as the drama of the 1998 season exploded with each swing of the bat. It’s this cocktail of elements and the resulting electrifying excitement that caught me off guard; that almost, and I mean almost, made me re-think my deeply rooted distain for the steroid era and my belief that it remains a black eye on the game.
We label those who took steroids as cheaters. We view cheaters as bad people. And when we view bad people our minds naturally go to the extreme in that realm of unredeemable wrongdoers; it’s a slippery slope. I hadn’t realized that Sosa was likable, lovable even. His energy and love for the game poured through the clips of him playing and his exuberance for the game shone forth with every interview, both past and present. McGwire was sweet and sincere, a much shier gentle giant; his teammates and coaches really loved him. The fans? The SELL-OUT CROWDS? They were alive. They were involved in the game, they had to be there, packing games both at home and on the road, and erupting in a massive collective roar with every monstrous home run. People sat glued to television coverage that often left switched from the current programing to catch every McGwire or Sosa at bat. Television allowed everyone to witness this real-life battle of titans; night in, and night out.
The frenzied excitement created by the 1998 home run chase instantly erased the sour memories of the ’94 strike that had alienated many fans and left baseball as a spectator sport floating face down dead in the water. That season long homerun derby resuscitated the sport, giving it the greatest makeover in the history of the world; excluding the makeover in ‘Not Another Teen Movie,’ of course.
At the end of this well told doc, I felt like a ball being smashed off the barrel of Slammin’ Sammy’s (probably) corked bat. The game was fun, thrilling even. The Cardinals didn’t make the playoffs, and the Cubs barely did, but who cared? Seemingly no one. I can’t remember witnessing people, outside me and my nerdy friends, love and live baseball day and night from June through September. When the f*ck was the last time people couldn’t get enough baseball in June, and “when the f*ck did we get ice cream?” For two thrilling hours, I watched a classic moment in sports unfold with real life energy and excitement. For two hours, I did not care that those two men cheated. In fact, seeing their impact on the sport and better understanding how McGwire and Sosa saved baseball, I am, I was nearly glad they did.
It’s no secret at all the game is America’s past time, not future. In the past few seasons baseball’s been labeled as boring. People go to games as an “activity,” not because they love the sport. You can feel it in the atmosphere of the ball parks, where the chants are softer than the groans of my friends when I put a mid-May game on tv in the living room. Baseball has no sense, no stability. They don’t market their premier players at all. The best player ever is in his prime, and a New York team boasts a back-to-back Cy-Young winner, the story of the season? The Astros cheated two years ago. What a joke. Think what we may about the 90’s and early 2000’s, the sport was a superstar driven league, similar to the NBA today. Matt Chapman is a premier talent, the best player on a playoff team, and very few sports fans have a clue on who he is. I watched this doc. and saw what baseball was, what it needs to be today. During a time like this, it cut deep to know there was a time like that.
Did they ravage Maris’ record of 61 round-trippers? Totally. They spoiled his incredible feat of not only strength and skill, but endurance. But goddamn did those games look fun. Holy hell did that summer look like the best in the game’s history. Good lord would I trade it 10 times over for the debacle going on right now. I hope the “commissioner” takes a look at this documentary and sees it not as a glorification of those who tried to take an edge on the innocent, but as glimpse of the joy and excitement baseball brings when it’s being marketed properly. Long before COVID there were problems, but if they could come back from the strike in ’94, the show can come back from this. Spectacles like that one may never come again, but there are other ways to make the game fun.
I’m grateful that this documentary humanized a group of men I internally villainized. And since I’ve had time to digest, my stance on steroid users being in the hall of fame remains fixed. No dice for me. Still, it was nice to see a time where people were dying to be at the ballpark. I now believe again, that we can get that feeling back.