'Long Gone Summer': A loving tribute to a fairy-tale season

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It was like something out of a fairy tale. Mighty warriors, wielding weapons capable of cracking the sky. One, a giant who seemed to step from mythology into the batter’s box. The other, a born showman, always smiling, always celebrating both the game and himself. 

For one summer, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captured the attention of an entire nation. Baseball’s a team game, but these two legends-in-the-making turned it into a one-on-one showdown. They were masters of the home run, the greatest single play in all of sports. They finished the year with 70 and 66 home runs, obliterating the previous record. They did things we hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since. They unified a nation and restored the reputation of a broken sport. 

It was so perfect, it couldn’t possibly last. And it didn’t.

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Now, we have the fairy tale and its sad epilogue in one neat package. “Long Gone Summer,” the latest doc fast-tracked by ESPN in the quarantine era, debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. ET. It is a thorough, nostalgia-laden look at one of the most remarkable seasons in baseball history … and the price it exacted on the men who created it. 

At more than 100 minutes, the documentary unfolds slowly, like a good ballgame, punctuated throughout with home runs leaving stadiums at the speed of departing fighter jets. We spend a bit of time with McGwire’s history, a touch with Sosa’s, but the main thrust of the story is that magnificent, miraculous, Vegas-level fraud of a summer that was 1998. 

(Michael Wagstaffe / Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe / Yahoo Sports)

If you weren’t old enough to remember the McGwire-Sosa chase, it’s impossible in an era of always-on social media to get across just how connected the country was that summer. “Long Gone Summer” does an outstanding job of getting this across, showing everyone from everyday bleacher bums right on up to David Letterman reacting with open-mouthed awe at the moonshots of McGwire and the sniper shots of Sosa. Even Karl Malone and Michael Jordan make cameos here, stopping by like Marvel characters contributing to the greater 30 for 30 Cinematic Universe. 

Baseball works best when viewed through the prism of nostalgia. You remember your first ballgame with your parents, the first time you went on a date to a game, the first time you brought your kids. A baseball season is like a companion, something you can check in on as frequently as you like over the course of a summer, something that’s always there for you from April to September. “Long Gone Summer” nails that nostalgia, from the title to a score by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy that’s so beautiful I want it as its own album. 

Characters flit in and out of the documentary, some substantial, others only a wisp. You may not remember that it was supposed to be Ken Griffey Jr., not Sammy Sosa, dueling with McGwire for the home run record. But Griffey, all smile and youth and power, faded over the summer. And once the chase was done, the record smashed, there lurked Barry Bonds, coming along just three years later to erase McGwire’s name from atop the record books. 

McGwire and Sosa take varying routes toward confession. McGwire is contrite, weary, almost broken. Sosa, true to form, continues to hide behind a smile, never letting his facade crack. It’s both fascinating and infuriating. 

Even though McGwire and Sosa weren’t the only ones who (may have) doped during the ‘90s, they’re the ones who bear the brunt of our collective disappointment, our frustration at being duped, our awareness that maybe we should’ve been paying attention to more than just homers that scraped satellites. As always, “The Simpsons” had it right all along ... we always choose the dingers.

Long after 1998, McGwire eventually confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs. Sosa, implicated by association, has never admitted he was getting by on anything other than good hard work. As each new humiliation arrived for the once-mighty duo — a corked-bat controversy for Sosa, a Congressional investigation, an ongoing snub from the Hall of Fame — their reputations crumbled just a little more. 

McGwire eventually found his way back to the dugout, coaching for nearly a decade. Sosa remains estranged from the club he made world-famous back in 1998. Both are now out of baseball, spending time with family, and that fairy-tale season seems a long way away. 

Those who want their pound of flesh are going to be a bit disappointed here; baseball’s players, then-commissioner Bud Selig, fans, media … nobody gets raked too badly or for too long. Instead, the primary focus here is, as the title suggests, on that one summer, on a record chase that seemed a little too good to be true … even if we didn’t want to admit it at the time.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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