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As the wait for MLB to start the 2020 season continues, baseball fans have a reason to be excited in Sunday’s premiere of Long Gone Summer on ESPN.
The latest 30 for 30 documentary chronicles the 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs and their efforts to be the first to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
Maris’ record of 61 homers was set in 1961; he and Babe Ruth (1927) were the only players in MLB history to hit at least 60 homers in a single season until 1998.
‘Long Gone Summer’ Viewing Information
Date: Sunday, June 14
Start Time: 9 p.m. ET
Live Stream: ESPN online
In an interview with Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune, Long Gone Summer director AJ Schnack discussed why he wanted to tell this story:
“I knew that neither Mark nor Sammy had really talked at length about that summer and certainly not together for the same project. So to get them both to reflect was incredible. When I started, it was about 20 years since that had happened. But obviously the story around that summer is a little bit cloudier now. And what’s interesting to me was to try to say, OK, we know a lot about what happened in baseball during the steroid era. But can we go back and show what that summer really felt like? Because if we don’t put you back in that moment in time, it’s pretty easy to just think of it as something either everybody knew or everybody thought about at the time as opposed to the reality of what it was like as it was happening when we were in it.“
One important thing to note going in is the documentary isn’t going to have a heavy focus on performance-enhancing drugs.
Per Sports Illustrated‘s Paul Banks, PEDs aren’t mentioned until roughly 90 minutes into the 103-minute movie, and “McGwire again comes clean and owns up while Sosa remains evasive and stubborn.”
The summer of 1998 was a crucial moment in time for Major League Baseball. The league was still rebuilding itself with fans who left following the cancellation of the 1994 World Series because of a player strike.
Per Baseball Reference, the average attendance for games from 1995-97 was 26,469 compared to 31,256 during the season prior to the strike.
When the 1998 season started, McGwire was widely viewed as the most likely player to break Maris’ record, having hit 58 homers between the Cardinals and Oakland Athletics in 1997. His main competition in the race going into the year was Ken Griffey Jr., who was the AL MVP after hitting 56 homers for the Seattle Mariners in 1997.
Sosa had never hit more than 40 home runs in a season coming into 1998 and only had 13 through the first 52 games of the season. Slammin’ Sammy put himself in the race with 20 homers in June, setting an MLB record for most home runs a calendar month that still stands.
The back-and-forth chase between McGwire and Sosa played a huge role in MLB’s resurgence in popularity. Average attendance at games in 1998 was 29,030, the third-highest of any year in the decade after 1994 (31,256) and 1993 (30,964).
McGwire came out on top in the home run chase, hitting the record-breaking 62nd homer on Sept. 8 against the Cubs. He finished the season with 70, a record that stood until 2001 when Barry Bonds hit 73.
Sosa finished 1998 with 66 homers and was named NL MVP after leading the Cubs to their first playoff appearance since 1989.