CHICAGO — ESPN’s documentary on the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and their tainted 1998 home run chase has little power and fails to connect.
Director AJ Schnack has produced a rarity among productions under the network’s “30 for 30” banner in that Long Gone Summer suffers from a lack of ambition.
Set to make its debut at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on Sunday, Long Gone Summer takes an event that energized the nation 22 years ago and pounds it into a dull paste.
Schnack’s most egregious misstep is taking way too much time before addressing the murky ethics, and then doing so with an ambivalence that largely squanders whatever resonance and relevance this tarnished episode in baseball history might have.
It’s as though he believes the monotonous drumbeat of home runs has meaning in and of itself. It no longer does. Even the talk of how baseball needed the big show to lure disenchanted fans back to the game wears thin with repetition.
The larger story is that the records at stake — 60 homers in 154 games by Babe Ruth and 61 in 162 games by Roger Maris — meant a great deal to fans in 1998, and now they don’t.
Schnack only hints at this. McGwire, who hit 70 home runs that season, and Sosa, who finished with 66, didn’t just break those records — they destroyed them. But steroid use by the players of their era rendered the records meaningless. And now fans find it impossible to regard the HR mark the same way anymore.
McGwire has owned up publicly to the fact he cheated. His arc is that of the hero who has been humbled and admits and accepts that what he did was wrong.
Little wonder he has been welcomed back to baseball as a coach, and he looks especially good here compared to Sosa.
Chicagoans long ago grew weary of Sosa resurfacing from time to time with qualified denials and/or equivocation about what he did. Confession and contrition elude him, as does any measure of redemption.
Sosa said on WMVP-AM 1000 in Chicago this week that he has seen the documentary and feels it “is going to change a lot of people’s minds.”
But it doesn’t help him, if that’s what he means.
As bad as his evasiveness comes off, a bigger shot to Sosa’s image is that he often seems like a supporting player. Center stage of Long Gone Summer belongs to McGwire — and he clearly owns it.
It matters not that Sosa in 1998 was the National League most valuable player, helped the Cubs to a playoff berth and shared Sports Illustrated’s year-end Sportsmen of the Year honor with McGwire. That all is an afterthought.
One maddening, distracting thing Schnack does is intercut shots of Wrigley Field in 1998 with the overhauled Wrigley of today. He also does it with the old Busch Stadium, which was razed years ago.
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Keep an eye on rightfield at Wrigley, Cubs fans. If there’s a big Budweiser scoreboard rather than just the Torco billboard, it’s a cheat and those fans are years away from actually cheering on Sosa.
It’s like a “What’s Wrong with This Picture” puzzle, and once noticed, it’s impossible not to notice each time it happens.
But that’s not more disorienting than treating the 136 home runs Sosa and McGwire hit in 1998 as legitimate.
Long Gone Summer is the equivalent of showing only slam dunks to finally reveal in a long shot that there has been a trampoline involved, then more or less shrugging as if that’s OK.
Schnack could have added substance to strengthen it. Ironically, he didn’t.