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‘Long Gone Summer’ director wants fans to remember good times with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa

But AJ Schnack also addresses the fallout from the 1998 home-run race in ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” documentary, which airs at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire slugged it out on the field but became friends off of it, which is evident in director AJ Schnack’s “Long Gone Summer.”
Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire slugged it out on the field but became friends off of it, which is evident in director AJ Schnack’s “Long Gone Summer.”
Leon Algee/AP

Baseball fans know what happened after the great home-run race of 1998. They remember the revelations of the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs and the shameful congressional hearing. They remember the black eye the sport suffered just after taking a shot to the jaw from the 1994-95 strike.

But they might not recall, or more likely they chose to forget, how the ’98 season gripped the nation as millions watched the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa slug it out for the most revered record in sports.

Director AJ Schnack wants to jog fans’ memories with “Long Gone Summer,” the latest in ESPN’s run of “30 for 30” documentaries, which will premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday.

“For me, it was important to put the audience back in that moment and say, this wasn’t just a baseball story,” Schnack said, “this was a cultural moment in the country where everybody came together and got excited about baseball and about these two guys and which one was going to be the one to break [Roger] Maris’ record.

“What I like to do in my films is to take something that you think you know and then strip away some of what’s in your head about it and get back to what is at its root. In this case, there’s such a cloud around that year because we know it took place in the steroid era, and I think a lot of people view it only through that lens.”

The two-hour film addresses the fallout of the home-run race, but not before meeting Schnack’s goal of transporting viewers to old Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field through highlights from game broadcasts and MLB’s archive. Baseball had the foresight to send a camera crew to each team’s last visit to the other’s ballpark to film the events for posterity. Schnack said most of the footage hasn’t been seen before.

But fans will pay particular attention to what McGwire and Sosa told Schnack, who interviewed both twice for a total of over five hours each. McGwire admitted in 2010 to taking steroids that season, and Sosa continued to deny it, but both still revealed plenty. McGwire shared a story that even his manager at the time, Tony La Russa, didn’t know.

“I had done a bunch of research before going into those interviews,” Schnack said. “I think with Mark, about 25 minutes in, he was telling me stuff that I had never heard before. I felt like from the beginning, he came to tell his story and to tell things he never talked about.

“With Sammy, he was that excited, joyful self, but I also thought he was owning his legacy in a way that I hadn’t seen him do a lot. To talk about not just what he did in ’98, but the fact that he had been a 30-30 player [home runs and stolen bases] and he had been a top home-run hitter in the National League before ’98.”

Schnack conducted more than 40 interviews, including then-Cubs manager Jim Riggleman, 1998 NL Rookie of the Year Kerry Wood and former starter Steve Trachsel, who allowed McGwire’s then-record-breaking 62nd home run (Big Mac went on to outlast Sosa 70-66). Schnack didn’t have time to delve into the Cubs’ playoff run, glossing over the victory against the Giants in Game 163 for the wild card. This was about two men, not so much two teams.

But it also was about Schnack, who grew up a Cardinals fan in downstate Edwardsville. With relatives in Aurora, the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry was always top of mind in his family. He’d even watch the Cubs after school on WGN. But when he moved to Los Angeles after college, Schnack lost touch with baseball, partly because of the strike. As with so many others, the home-run race brought him back.

“When ’98 happened, for me, it was something that really reconnected me with my childhood and my love of baseball,” Schnack said. “So it’s a big deal to me to have the opportunity to tell that story. When ESPN and I started talking about a project to work on together, we said, let’s see if we can make this happen and if we can get these guys to want to do this. I think that because of my history in Illinois and the St. Louis area, it was a big reason why they both said yes.”

Schnack hopes viewers come away with a new perspective of not just the season but the era. He said it was important to him to show how the gym culture had taken over baseball, infusing the game with supplements as well as steroids. Schnack recalled watching the Cardinals of his childhood under manager Whitey Herzog, whose players looked frail compared to those of the late ’90s and early 2000s.

“You look back at those players now, and you can’t believe how skinny they are. How are they even swinging the bat?” Schnack said. “These are things we don’t talk about too much anymore. It’s just this conversation around steroids.

“We were in the middle of something where a lot of players were using a lot of different kinds of substances to help them bulk up and to get through the season, overcome injuries. And a lot of it, the supplement part for sure, was right out in the open.”

It might leave the audience conflicted. Here was this captivating, historic home-run chase that picked baseball up off the mat, only to be overshadowed by the tumult that followed. Schnack’s film celebrates the sluggers while exploring what might have helped make them sluggers.

So how does the director feel about a season that rekindled the country’s passion for the game yet later left it reeling?

“I think I’m gonna let this film speak for itself in terms of that,” he said. “Certainly, my feelings about it have run the gamut, but … I think I’m just gonna let the film speak for that.”