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Documentary Review: Long Gone Summer

It’s the perfect story with the highest of highs and lowest of lows. The stars include a highly touted baseball player from California that went to USC and made wore his country’s uniform in the Summer Olympic Games. On the other side, a skinny baseball player that grew up in poverty in Dominican Republic.

The two players were about as far different as they come. Mark McGwire bashed 49 home runs and took home American League Rookie of the Year honors in 1987. Sammy Sosa toiled in the minor leagues after being signed by the Texas Rangers in 1985 before making his debut in 1989. Sosa was sent to the Chicago White Sox for Harold Baines and a couple years later shipped to the northside of town for George Bell. 

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As Sosa was forming into a superstar in the mid-1990’s, McGwire was on the decline due to injuries. By 1998, Sosa was a superstar, and McGwire was back to his old form. And the two players were opponents in the same division. Among the biggest rivalries in baseball – Cubs vs. Cardinals. 

Major League Baseball had suffered a loss of many fans after the strike shortened 1994 season. The summer of 1998 brought back many fans because of the home run chase between Sosa and McGwire. The goal was 61 and beyond. Roger Maris had broken Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961. It was a record that stood until September 1998 when McGwire launched home run #62…against the Chicago Cubs. McGwire went on to win the home run title that season with 70, while Sosa finished the year with 66 long balls.

Fast forward a few years later when Sosa’s shattered bat revealed it was corked. Further turmoil ensued the following year when he left a game at Wrigley Field early. His Cubs legacy when tarnished. Further, both Sosa and McGwire were named in various reports of using steroids during their playing careers. 

McGwire was welcomed back to baseball in October 2009 when he was named hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Meanwhile, Sosa has stayed under the radar for the most part in recent years. To date, he has not been invited back to Wrigley Field or the Chicago Cubs. 

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When “Long Gone Summer” was announced earlier this year, I was excited. Like many others who had sworn off baseball in 1994, a perfect storm of events brought me back in 1998. On May 6, a 20-year old phenom named Kerry Wood tied the MLB record with 20 strikeouts in a game. And the Cubs were at or near the top of the National League Central standings. I couldn’t keep myself away any longer. After collecting basketball cards and professional wrestling magazines I began collecting baseball cards again when I discovered the 1998 Bowman set. 

The documentary aired on Sunday night and it was appointment television. It brought back so many great memories from the summer of 1998. Now thinking back on that year, I could write a song titled, “Summer of ’98,” with apologies to Bryan Adams. I got my first car that year. It was a 1989 Pontiac Sunbird, and on June 6, I had all the freedom to drive away from my no-stoplight small town. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry was a perfect back drop to a summer of high school innocence. 

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With all these great memories rushing back…why was I disappointed in “Long Gone Summer?” There isn’t one reason, rather a few. 

A Cardinals/McGwire Bias

This is just my Cubs bias showing, but the documentary was slanted to Mark McGwire. I get it. The filmmaker is a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Mark McGwire did break the record first, and ultimately became the single-season home run record holder (for a few seasons before Barry Bonds broke it with 73). To a lesser extent, McGwire did return to the game of baseball a decade ago as the Cardinals hitting coach, and has coached in the big leagues since his playing days. Once Sosa retired, he has pretty much stayed out of the game.

So, I get the Cardinals/McGwire bias, but I still don’t like it. Even former Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa mentioned in the doc that having Sosa around made McGwire much more entertaining in press conferences. The two big bashers were a tag team. If it was just McGwire running for the home run record it would not have been a chase. There would not have been scoreboard watching. It takes two to tango, and I wish there would have been a little more back story on the Cubs/Sosa side.

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Production

I have limited knowledge on what it takes to produce a documentary. However, I have a small bit of knowledge on TV production from doing freelance work doing TV play-by-play on a handful of games over the years. I have several friends that produce, so I’ve gleaned the basics from talking with them and listening.

As I watched “Long Gone Summer” I couldn’t help but notice clips of fans at Wrigley wearing Kris Bryant jerseys. They used current crowd shots for a documentary about a home run chase from 22 years ago. Maybe, the filmmakers didn’t have clearance to use enough footage from 1998, so they had to fill in the gaps. At any rate, it looks terrible.

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Was It Rushed?

Piggy backing on the production value, after watching the two-hour doc it seemed rushed to me. The storyline just didn’t meld together like a good documentary should. Maybe after watching the 10-hour “Last Dance” I was spoiled. It didn’t go into Sosa detail as much as McGwire. Did the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a rushed finish to this documentary to gain more ratings? I don’t know, but that’s what it appears.

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An Average Documentary

Not great, not terrible. “Long Gone Summer” was okay, average. Is it worth spending two hours to watch? Maybe, depending on what else you have going on. If you want some nostalgia, or if you’re a big Mark McGwire fan it’s worth a watch. If you’re a Cubs fan, it’s meh. I did enjoy it, and the fact I am down on it is probably because I have been looking forward to this documentary for several months since it was announced and had it on a pedestal. What did you think of “Long Gone Summer?”

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