Friday, June 12, 2020

Long Gone Summer

Director AJ Schnack's examination of the historic home-run chase during 1998 Major League Baseball season is a solid documentary in covering the bases of what occurred, even if it fails for too much of its running time to fully capture the magic of the moment or find a way to better frame events following the exposure of rampant steroid use in baseball (which it saves for a lengthy epilogue).

Scheduled to air Sunday night as part of ESPN's 30 for 30, the film includes interviews with both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa along with plenty of video from 1998 season and interviews from the likes of Bob Costas, Tony La Russa, Kerry Wood, and others. It also, oddly, spends quite a bit of time on Ken Griffey, Jr., who ended the year well off the pace McGwire and Sosa set, while barely mentioning Barry Bonds breaking the record again just a few years later.

Long Gone Summer is informative at times, especially in delving into the friendship born of rivalry between the two players. However, nothing presented here is likely to change your opinion one way or the other about the legitimacy of current baseball records.

For those looking at a more personal look at baseball during the home-run chase of 1998, I'd recommend Mike Lupica's Summer of '98 which does a better job capturing the mood of the moment and placing the immediate events in context to baseball's larger history (prior to the steroid fallout). As to medical enhancements of the chase, and the legacy of both players, the more transparent McGwire comes off better than the still defiant Sosa when the film gets around to asking questions which you get the feeling AJ Schnack wasn't sure if he really wanted answers for.

McGwire makes a fair point that he broke no rules in using the MLB-allowed Androstenedione, but the film isn't about the steroid era. Nor is the focus of the documentary on how steroids played a role in the home-run chase. No matter what answers Schnack received when asking these kinds of questions, they would invariably affect the tone and focus of his documentary, which definitely takes a hard-right turn towards the end to cover the subject, ending on a lull. It may be easy to say the director couldn't ignore the facts, but one could also argue that including them as an afterthought muddies the narrative structure of Long Gone Summer in a way that a snapshot focus of on-the-field events (or even a strictly steroid-driven history lesson) would have likely been a more satisfying, if admittedly less complete, experience.

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