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Sara’s Diary, Day 95 without baseball: A few words about ‘Long Gone Summer’

ESPN’s Cardinals-centric take on the 1998 home run race was disorienting and missed some key details

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire share a laugh during the home run chase in 1998
Photo by PETER NEWCOMB/AFP via Getty Images

In a summer without baseball, the most anticipated sports moments have come in two forms: historic games and sports documentaries. As a girl who grew up in Utah I didn’t share the enthusiasm many in Chicago felt about The Last Dance, but yesterday’s release of ESPN’s 30 for 30 Long Gone Summer was supposed to make up for that. I couldn’t wait to relive the excitement of the 1998 home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.

I didn’t have a good feeling about the documentary the second they introduced the director as a lifelong Cardinals fan.

The whole point of documentaries like this are to go behind the scenes and give even the hardest core of fans some bits of information they may have forgotten, or never knew in the first place. There were no such reveals in Long Gone Summer. I like home runs as much as the next person, but how do you even produce this particular documentary without capturing how long ball-crazy the entire culture was in 1998? It really isn’t hard, a few clips like this classic Nike ad would have sufficed:

The documentary also lacked historical context. Chip Caray mentioned the repercussions of the 1994 strike season in passing in the first minute of the show and then it just vanished from the documentary. Seeing one of the most important frames for how the 1998 season revitalized the game at a key time reduced to an afterthought was maddening, but it wasn’t nearly as maddening as some other decisions made during the show. Long Gone Summer was a very Cardinals-centric and superficial look at one of the greatest baseball seasons in history. Here’s a smattering of baseball Twitter’s instant reactions:

This was a pretty common concern among viewers and it wasn’t just Chicagoans:

Sammy Sosa’s time with the White Sox was completely erased. He gets drafted by the Rangers and then winds up a Cub “because of a trade.” The only way you would know that trade involved the White Sox (again, a pretty significant thing) is if you deduced it from the clip of George W. Bush making a self-deprecating comment in a presidential debate about trading Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines.

It seems like the White Sox should have been included before Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game. I’ve never seen anything more awkwardly placed in a documentary than references to Kerry Wood’s 1998 season. I can only guess it was so they had an excuse to show this sign:

But that led to another bizarre editorial decision. How exactly do you go through all the trouble of bringing Kerry into the documentary, getting him to discuss the importance of Sosa’s role with the 1998 Cubs and just not ask the follow-up about conflict between the two that happened later? Who knows, but it feels like this should have been in the documentary and not in a Turk Wendell radio interview the next day:

And then there is the absolutely egregious use of b-roll footage throughout the entire documentary. The worst example of this comes about an hour into the show when for reasons I will never understand ESPN and the show’s producers decided to date stamp a scene from well after 2015 with August 19, 1998:

I mean, I get it. The film quality is better now than it was in 1998, but it doesn’t take an expert to know that the video board in right field didn’t exist until 2015. There were federal lawsuits over that video board that are pretty easy to research. After I tweeted that a response pointed out the lack of bullpens on the field, so this is more like a 2017-19 picture in all likelihood. Just yikes.

But while the date stamp made that particular example bad, it was not even close to the only one, check out this post 2016 crowd after a Sammy HR:

Imagine trying to pass off a crowd shot with a Ben Zobrist jersey in it as a 1998 crowd reaction:

Or this shot of a Black Lives Matter sign and a Pride flag in Ferguson, Missouri that is in a documentary covering 1998 for...reasons?

It felt rushed and like there wasn’t a lot of care or thought put into the b-roll. Being constantly and inexplicably jostled between 1998 and 2019 was disorienting. It isn’t like there is a dearth of footage from 1998. ESPN had been around for 19 years at that point, the Cubs played the vast majority of their games on WGN, and the home run race dominated sports news for months. There was honestly no reason to cut away from a Sammy Sosa home run to a shot of someone wearing a Rizzo jersey (he turned nine in 1998) at Murphy’s Bleachers, or to show a “St. Louis is Boring” shirt based on a Kris Bryant quote from the 2019 Cubs Convention (he turned six in 1998) as a proxy to explain the rivalry between the Cubs and Cardinals to viewers:

So if you have a couple of hours to spare and want to watch a documentary that doesn’t account for how Sosa made the home run race fun in June after Mark McGwire clearly treated it like drudgery to that point, by all means check out Long Gone Summer. The home runs are mammoth and that is always fun. I, for one, will be waiting for a Cubs fan to remake this documentary. As the tweet below sums up - there is a lot of great material from the summer of 1998 left to work with: