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'Long Gone Summer' Documentary Revisits Controversial 1998 Home Run Chase


For baseball fans - some of us baseball fans - "Long Gone Summer," ESPN's new "30 For 30" documentary, will be a little like looking at pictures from a rapturous honeymoon years after a divorce. It's about the summer of 1998 and Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs going back-and-forth, back-and-forth to break baseball's home run record.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Deep to right field - way back there.

Swing and a long one - goodbye.

SIMON: But that home run race ultimately broke the hearts of fans when the use of performance-enhancing drugs discredited the records at the time.

AJ Schnack, the director of "Long Gone Summer," joins us from his home in Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

AJ SCHNACK: Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: Baseball and, in a way, the country really needed a lift in 1998, didn't it?

SCHNACK: Yeah. I mean, it wasn't a great year for baseball. We were still recovering from people's feelings after the horrible strike of '94 and '95. Certainly, Cal Ripken's streak had gotten some interest back to the game, but, you know, if you looked at the rest of the country, we were embroiled in a political scandal in Washington that, you know, really was pitting everyone against each other. And this had the effect - this race and these two guys participating in the chase really had the effect of bringing everyone together in a way that we hadn't seen in sports in quite a while.

SIMON: Bring us back to that day in St. Louis. Mark McGwire - he had hit his 61st home run to tie Roger Maris' record. He came to the plate against the Cubs. I don't even want to mention the name of the pitcher because it's really not fair. But in any event...


SIMON: In any event, recreate that moment for us, if you can.

SCHNACK: What I remember most about that game and watching it on television was there was every expectation that it was going to happen that night, that McGwire would hit the home run. The Maris family was there. His son was there. Cubs were there. Everyone expected that McGwire was going to hit 62 on 9/8/'98. And then when he does, you know, I think - you know, you didn't mention Steve Trachsel, but I will. You know, Steve Trachsel has to stand on the mound for a solid, I think, 10, 15 minutes and watch...

SIMON: Yeah.

SCHNACK: ...This celebration that took place. I mean, the game completely stops for a lengthy celebration of Mark's achievement and his embracing of the Maris family, holding his son up into the air. And I think that that - that emotion, that feeling of, like, this is what baseball is, this is fathers and sons, generations, parents and children - it felt like the magic that you wanted to associate with baseball. You felt like you were witnessing it in real time.

SIMON: And Sammy Sosa comes running in from right field, the opposing team, to hug this guy with whom he's been contending all year.

SCHNACK: Yeah. And that - for a lot of baseball purists, the idea of that was like, what is happening here? What has happened to baseball? But, you know, for the country, it was this moment where they felt like, I like both of these two guys. There wasn't the sort of vitriol that was directed toward Hank Aaron when he was trying to break the home run record. The idea that these two very different guys - guys of different races, guys from different backgrounds - that they're embracing, that they seem to have this love for one another and love for the game, you know, it made people feel really good.

SIMON: Mark McGwire ended that 1998 season hitting 70 home runs - 70 home runs. I can't help but think he could've hit 61 or 62 without resorting to juicing. What do you think?

SCHNACK: Yeah, I agree. I think if you look at the science that we have around what steroids allow you to do, steroids allow you to swing a little bit faster, and that can make your ball go a little bit farther - I think, you know, maybe 10 feet more, 15 feet more or some percentage thereof. You know, that means a lot when you're a player who hits home runs that just go over the wall. Most of Mark's home runs were upper deck outfield shots. I mean, these were huge, monster bombs. So probably, he can hit, you know, over 62 in that season without any help. You know, that is - maybe one of the tragedies is we won't know for sure, but I certainly believe that he could've done it without having used steroids.

SIMON: So 22 years later, now that we know on pretty good authority that performance-enhancing drugs were widely used during that period and by the very players that we were talking about, should fans feel duped?

SCHNACK: Well, that's one of the questions I wanted to ask all the people who we interviewed. You know, what do we do with our feelings? What do we do with the fond memories that we had in the time? Are they not real? You know, was it a magic trick? And I think, you know, everybody has their own opinion about that. But, you know, a lot of people are content to know that this was a specific era in baseball, and we have to know that that was what was going on at the time. And once we sort of make peace with that era, you know, maybe you can still look at it with some degree of the fondness you had when it was happening.

SIMON: What do Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa say?

SCHNACK: I think they are happy to have had an opportunity to talk about the chase in a way that they haven't before. You know, I think for Sammy, he would like to be recognized in a way that he hasn't been. He's not been welcomed back to the Wrigley Field by the current ownership of the Cubs. I think he would really like to have that opportunity to bond again with Cubs fans and to be welcomed in the stadium where he made his name.

You know, for Mark, he went back to baseball in 2011 as a coach, and, you know, he worked for almost a decade for three teams. And we talked to the players he worked with. He was, by all accounts, an excellent coach. So they probably both have made some degree of peace with their legacies and how they have lived their life in the game. But, you know, I think that for both of them, it's probably not over yet.

SIMON: AJ Schnack - his "30 For 30" documentary "Long Gone Summer" debuts on ESPN June 14. Thanks so much for being with us.

SCHNACK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.