There are three key facts you should know about me: I’m 21 years old, I love sports, and I really, really love baseball. In fact, I think it’s the greatest sport ever invented. Not many people still think that, and very few of them are my age. But it’s true.
I love baseball like a good friend who’s been by my side for years. I love it for its summer evening magic, the open expanse of green grass under your feet, and plenty of other romantic qualities probably quoted by Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams (see last week’s post). But most of all, I love it for its ability to make any given moment feel timeless and meaningful.
Needless to say, the first summer without baseball on TV in my memory has been rough. However, I was recently reminded of that very feeling while watching “Long Gone Summer,” ESPN’s new 30 for 30 documentary on the record-breaking 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs.
I was familiar with the story: two sluggers—one a muscle-bound, all-American first baseman, the other a stocky and genial Dominican outfielder—both competing for baseball’s most sacred pedestal: the single-season home run mark of 61 set by Roger Maris 37 years prior. Both hitters ended up surpassing Maris, with McGwire whacking a whopping 70 dingers, Sosa finishing with 66, and many credited the chase for saving baseball’s popular appeal in the wake of the 1994 strike. I was also familiar with the infamous controversy that has mired that memorable season, and those that followed, ever since: revelations of steroid abuse by many of the game’s biggest stars, including McGwire and Sosa. For a brief moment, they held the whole world’s attention. Then, at some point, we decided to pretend it never happened.
Here’s another fact for you, to put the length of time since these events occurred in context: approximately one month after the new record was set, I was born.
For most of my baseball education (which consisted of Braves broadcasts, Ken Burns documentaries, and Sports Illustrated features), I had no idea it even happened. In my mind, McGwire and Sosa were nothing more than dusty old baseball cards my dad kept in a shoebox alongside guys like Larry Walker and Sid Bream (you know, this guy!). For most of America, it would seem, the stars (or asterisks?) of the so-called “steroid era” are just that: memories collecting dust.
In recent years, the 1998 home run race has resurfaced somewhat in public discourse. In late 2015, this impassioned plea from Corinne Landrey of FanGraphs.com was one of several published stating the case for McGwire as he faced his final year of eligibility on the Hall of Fame voting ballot (he was not elected). Then in Summer 2018, as “The Race” turned 20 years old, it was revisited by sportswriters around the country with a sort of symbolic reverence that rings hollow considering the sheer neglect it has received in our collective consciousness for all these years. Frankly, I think it stinks—and I wasn’t even there!
“Long Gone Summer,” which was directed by longtime Cardinals fan A.J. Schnack, appears at first to be the latest installment in this trend—but its popularity could represent a shift in the conversation, if we’re ready for it. Much like the “Last Dance” series on Michael Jordan, the film takes a deep dive into ‘90s nostalgia as it recounts the tense months leading up to McGwire’s iconic 62nd longball. It aimed to remind us of how it felt to be caught up in a truly transformative sports moment, and at that, it succeeded. How can you watch this and not get chills?
It’s too late now for McGwire to see his name enshrined in Cooperstown, and Sosa’s time is running out as well (he has two years left on the ballot). I’m certainly not here to here to argue statistics about an era that I’m too young to even remember—and it may well be for the best that the juicers are looked on with a certain degree of suspicion. There’s no doubt that the steroid craze had a negative impact on the game, although it has been called into question how much of an effect the drugs really had on performance. At the end of the day, I can’t blame anyone for wanting to forget; but this part of the game’s history still has its place, and it pains me to see its significance—and lessons—disregarded.
It also strikes me as a shame to see the players who created that sense of meaning for so many people effectively blackballed from the game, à la Shoeless Joe Jackson (have we learned nothing from Field of Dreams? …then again, a cornfield in Iowa with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would be pretty cool). They ought to be recognized in some respect before their memories really are “long gone.”
Now, as Major League Baseball prepares to begin its virus-shortened, mini-season in late July, with rising labor tensions and an electric wave of young talent ready to step into the spotlight, I can’t help but feel like we’re reaching another critical point in the sport’s history. Whatever happens next, I hope we can learn from past mistakes, not ignore them; and I hope that everyone sticks along for the ride, too, just to see where it takes us.
We need it to matter, because that’s why we watch. History can happen at any moment, after all.