St. Louis Cardinals: Mark McGwire doc leaves questions unanswered
By Bill Dawson
ESPN’s ‘Long Gone Summer’ celebrates 1998 Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa saga but skirts some steroid issues.
“Long Gone Summer,” ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary about the 1998 home-run race between the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, has something in common with the recent ESPN Bulls documentary, “The Last Dance.” Both examine a 1998 sports story, and both let the primary subjects — Michael Jordan, McGwire and Sosa — control much of the narrative.
Director A.J. Schnack and his tribe of talking heads, including Bob Costas and political pundit/baseball fan George Will, address the steroid accusations that came to light in the 2000s and made that feel-good ’98 home-run race appear, in retrospect, more about drugs than natural competitive drama. But overall, “Long Gone Summer” treads gently — too gently — on the PEDs issue.
McGwire finally owned up to his past steroid use in 2010 and said, late in the doc, “I regret doing it.” He also said “it sort of sucks,” although it’s unclear what he meant by that. Did it “suck” that he took steroids, or did it “suck” that the glorious sheen of ’98 has been sullied by steroid talk?
“Long Gone Summer” even casts a sliver of doubt about Sosa’s PED use. The ex-Cub slugger has never admitted to juicing, and the documentary states that a 2009 New York Times story remains the only real tie to Sosa and steroids. The Times story identified the slugger as one of 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in a 2003 baseball survey.
Director Schnack’s documentary adroitly recreates the thrills of the Mac-Sosa summer, one that supposedly “saved baseball” after attendance had plunged following the 1994 players strike and the cancelling of that year’s World Series. If you’re too young to have experienced that ’98 home-run derby, or if you wish to relive what became a breathless, day-by-day record chase between two likable sluggers, this doc’s for you.
More from St Louis Cardinals News
- Cardinals: Jose Quintana’s Market Price is Overvalued
- Cardinals: Paul Goldschmidt builds home for single mother and her family
- Cardinals: Is Lars Nootbaar underrated or overrated?
- 3 reasons why the Cardinals should wait to address rotation until 2024
- 5 Cardinals who must improve this off-season
Others might be perturbed by the dance-around-the-elephant aspects of the filmmaking. Watching this production, you’d think that no one suspected that steroids had a toehold on baseball in the late ’90s, but I recall seeing a man holding a sign that read “McGwire = steroids” while attending a 1999 Cardinals-Padres game in San Diego. I was irked because I liked McGwire and because Padres’ third baseman Ken Caminiti seemed the most obvious ‘roid-user in all of baseball.
From ages 26 to 31, Cammy was a sturdily built third baseman who averaged 12 home runs a year. Then he became a massive hulk who hit 40 homers in 1996. Caminiti later admitted to using steroids that year.
Actually, there was talk of steroid use as far back as the late-’80s when McGwire and Jose Canseco were doing their “Bash Brothers” act for the Oakland A’s. One of “Long Gone Summer’s” most glaring omissions is any reference to Canseco’s claim that he and McGwire were doping together during their ‘A’s days. Yes, the oft-arrested Canseco might seem an unreliable whistle-blower, but he accurately identified several users in 2005’s Juiced. To ignore his allegations seems curious, at best.
ESPN’s entertaining and often revealing “The Last Dance” was criticized by filmmaker Ken Burns, among others, for lacking journalistic integrity. Jordan’s production company, Jump 23, partnered in the production of the 10-part miniseries, which appeared to excuse MJ’s bullying of teammates. “Long Gone Summer” takes a similarly soft-handed approach to its heroes.
McGwire says he first took steroids to recover from a rash of injuries in the early-to-mid-’90s and suggested the juice had no effect on his home-run power. “By no means did I need to do it for strength purposes,” he says, adding that, “I was born to hit home runs.”
Sammy Sosa, meanwhile, is shown early in his career, looking nearly as skinny as a young Willie McGee. A former Cubs’ front-office employee credits “eating better” and “weight-training” for his spectacular body transformation.
“There were no regulations (about steroids) back in those days,” McGwire says, but that depends on what days he meant. Steroids have been banned since 1991, although there was no way to prove a player was juicing until league-wide PED testing began in 2003.
It’s jarring how the tenor of “Long Gone Summer” shifts from the thrilling notes of 1998 to the somber strains of 2001 when Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s record with 73 home runs. As Bonds is shown celebrating, ESPN’s Stuart Scott intones, “The baseball world has been rocked” with the news that the Giants’ slugger and two others and two others had received human growth hormones from BALCO. It’s as if the Mac-Sosa duo saved baseball in ’98, only for Bonds to break it three years later.
Yes, director Schnack’s film is centered on the exhilarating aspects of the McSosa home-run summer, and many are sick to death of the constant, grinding angst about steroids. But some aspects of “Long Gone Summer” resemble McGwire’s evasive non-statement in 2005 to a House Committee investigating steroid use in baseball. “I’m here to talk about the positive and not the negative about this issue,” Mac said.
While he was more forthcoming in “Long Gone Summer,” it’s fair to wonder if McGwire, Sosa, and former manager Tony La Russa placed limits on what the filmmakers could ask, and what they would say, on camera.
La Russa, McGwire’s manager in Oakland as well as St. Louis, long insisted that McGwire was no user. “La Russa does not believe that McGwire ever used anything other than Andro (androstenedione, a dietary supplement),” Buzz Bissinger wrote in 2005’s 3 Nights in August. But HBO Sports’ Bryant Gumbel criticized La Russa for his I-saw-no-steroids statements in 2014, asking how the manager could be eligible for the Hall of Fame after years when he’d “conveniently played dumb while his slugger morphed into the Incredible Hulk?”
I adored McGwire in the 1980s and ’90s, and I’m glad he’s back in baseball as a hitting coach. I’m delighted the Cardinals voted him into their Hall of Fame in 2017. Taking steroids 25 years ago doesn’t make him a bad guy. I just wish that the makers of “Long Gone Summer” would have addressed Canseco’s comments about PED use and challenged Mac’s assertion that steroids had no effect on his longball hitting. McGwire could always hit a baseball. Why toss so many softballs?