Sports

Director A.J. Schnack On His New ESPN Documentary About The McGwire/Sosa 1998 Home Run Chase, ‘Long Gone Summer’

In 1998, I had just graduated from the University of Missouri and didn’t have a job yet. Frankly, it was a kind of aimless year in my life where I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. That summer, I spent a lot of time at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, which pretty much anyone who was living in St. Louis did because there’s really not that much else going on there, ever. Oh course, this turned out to be the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa embarked on a then magical, now controversial home run chase that had never been seen before or, really, since.

On Labor Day, 1998, I was seated in left field when McGwire came up to bat, sitting on 60 home runs. He belts one high and deep, over my head. I’m sitting in an aisle seat and I instinctively start running up the steps. The ball ricochets off the Stadium Club glass and careens back down, right where my seat was. I’m not 100 percent sure I would have caught it. I had a glove. It would have probably been 50-50. But that day has haunted me for 22 years. Now, in A.J. Schnack’s new documentary, Long Gone Summer (which airs Sunday on ESPN), I got to relive the whole anguishing experience, as there’s footage of the whole thing.

What’s funny is, that week in Sports Illustrated, there’s a shot of the crowd and it caught me right when I realized I had made a terrible mistake. That’s me in the hat and bad shirt.

Sports Illustrated

But what I liked most about Schnack’s film is that it really recaptures what that summer was like. Yes, there was a price to pay later. It wasn’t quite as “real” as we all hoped, and the film gets into the fallout from the steroid era. But, mostly, it concentrates on just how fun that summer really was. I’ve had conflicted feelings about the whole thing, but this film really helped me realize that summer was a great experience and, regardless of what came of it, it was still magic.

I spent a lot of time at Busch Stadium that summer. So, as I’m watching this, I see archive footage of myself from 1998…

Oh, that’s amazing. Which footage? Do you know?

Oh, yeah, I know. I almost caught 61.

Oh, wow!

I’m in that shot of the crowd diving for the ball. It’s kind of haunted me my whole life, and then I got to see it again right there in your film.

Memorialized now.

What’s interesting about your film is that, yes, you dive into the PED scandal, but the focus is on the home run chase itself. It reminded me just how fun that summer was.

Yeah, I really just want to put everybody back in that moment and feel the way people felt. I grew up outside St. Louis, also went to Mizzou. I was a Cardinal fan. That summer really reconnected me with my childhood experience of enjoying sports and enjoying baseball, driving around with my dad, listening to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon on the radio. And when that summer happened, I’d moved to L.A. I was starting to work in film, and it just reconnected me with all of those feelings and the emotions and the excitement that I felt about baseball. So I felt like, yes, we now know that that summer took place in baseball’s steroid era. But, first, especially for people younger than us, I want to just say this is what that felt like, to be in the middle of that summer.

I remember back then if someone called the local St. Louis sports radio station and even mentioned steroids, they were cut off and the subject was dropped.

The fact that Major League Baseball and the Player’s Association put out a joint statement that speculated about McGwire’s use of something was inappropriate? I think people forget that not only was the era, now we know, steroids, but the whole culture of this kind of gym culture took over baseball. The fact that you have Biggio and Brady Anderson and those clips in the film where they’re talking so openly about their use of creatine. And then, when it starts to become real with the whole BALCO investigation, it’s almost as if maybe people felt let down because they had willingly subscribed to the disbelief, but a lot of it was there if you wanted to see it.

Yeah, Brady Anderson. He was the first one where I remember even I was thinking, “That’s weird.” Out of the blue he went from 16 home runs to 50. And it’s just like, “Oh yeah, I guess he’s just having a really good season.”

I think my first time of thinking anything was going on was, in the midst of it, or right after, then I saw some highlights from the ’80s Cardinals, the Whitey Herzog Cardinals. Looking at those teams and being like they’re all like the size of toothpicks. They’re just so tiny.

I saw highlights of Jack Clark recently and he’s this skinny guy. At the time I remember him being huge.

Yeah, he was our slugger. Yeah, they were all so skinny. They could all fit in a Volkswagen together.

What was your approach to interviewing both McGwire and Sosa? Because McGwire has been pretty open about things and Sosa hasn’t really as much.

For both of them, I sat down with them without cameras. McGwire a few times, just to make sure they knew what I wanted to do and to get them comfortable with me and asking questions and talking about the season. So, by the time we sat down with Mark, I don’t think he’s done a long-form interview in 20 years…

He did the one where he kind of admitted what he did. Right? I think that’s only one.

Right. Yeah. That hour with Costas. When he started telling me stuff that I’d never heard before, I was really excited. I was like, oh, he’s serious about having this conversation with me, which was very exciting.

What’s an example of that, something you were really surprised he said?

I mean, I think him talking about being in therapy is something that he’s never talked about publicly before, certainly to the extent that he does in the film, so that was pretty early on in our first conversation. And then I was like, oh, so that’s what this is going to be. Great. We can really talk about everything.

How did that compare to Sosa?

Getting to Mark, once you’re with Mark, you’re only communicating with Mark. With Sammy, you’re going through a few people. And so, some of the opportunities I had to talk with Mark in advance, I didn’t have with Sammy aside from our sit-downs before. I think with him, I wanted to know if he was going to still be the guy from ’98 who was like, “Everything is great and I’m just happy to be here. This is wonderful.” So, I was happy with him, because he seemed to be more purposeful in wanting to claim his legacy as somebody who didn’t just have one or two good years. He wanted to make sure that he spoke to the fact that he was the first Cub to be a 30-30 player. And he did that more than one. He was a top home run hitter in the National League for many years, even before ’98. And that he was a big reason why people came to Wrigley for a good half-decade. I was happy and excited to see him kind of take ownership of those things and not just be like someone who’s just talking about how happy he is in his situation.

McGwire is in the Cardinals Hall of Fame. He was the hitting coach of the 2011 World Series-winning Cardinals team. I think we, as fans, were disappointed at first, but I think we still pretty much love that guy. But then Sosa hasn’t been back to Wrigley. What do you make of that dichotomy between these two players and their relationship with their team today?

I mean, I wish we even had more time to sort of dig into all of that. And Mark has had an almost decade-long run as a coach and everybody has nothing but positive things to say about him as a coach and his relationship to players. And players like Albert Pujols and David Freese and others have certainly talked to the influence they feel that McGwire has had over them. The positive influence, so that’s great. And, yeah, you’re right, he’s been welcome back to the Cardinals. Not just as a coach, but as a member of the team’s Hall of Tame, a member of their family. And it doesn’t mean that some people still don’t have some conflicted feelings about that summer, but they have welcomed Mark back. The Giants have welcomed Bonds back. And the Reds have put a statue of Pete Rose right outside their stadium. I don’t know why the Cubs have decided to make this harder than it needs to be.

That’s a great way to put it.

I do understand that Sammy, there were some complicated years at the end of his career with them. And hard feelings. I get it, but I don’t know of another situation in baseball where a superstar legacy player for a team has not been welcomed back, particularly now that we’re getting into more than 15 years since he left. And I really think it’s on them. A lot of people said like, well, Sammy has to say the magic words, whatever magic words they want them to say. I kind of feel like it’s on the organization to figure out how to get one of their legendary players back as part of their family.

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