“Swung onnnn … BELTED!”
Chip Caray’s calls will take you there, back to that magical summer of 1998 when those three words spilled from his mouth with stunning regularity. That call will transport you back to Sammy Sosa’s remarkable emergence, back to a historic chase of one of baseball’s most hallowed records.
Sosa versus Mark McGwire.
Lumber versus cowhide.
Baseballs rocketing toward Jupiter just about every day.
Roger Maris, the Fargo-raised slugger, owned the single-season home run record for 37 years when the 1998 season began. McGwire, coming off a 58-home run campaign the previous season, was an obvious favorite to challenge Maris’ mark. So, too, was Mariners star Ken Griffey Jr. But then Sosa made a surprise entrance into the show. With his massive swing, his magnetic charisma and his enjoyment of the spotlight, Sosa added to the theatrics of a landmark season.
Director A.J. Schnack always had been fascinated with that season’s energy, its fun and its historical significance. And in his latest film, “Long Gone Summer,” Schnack has taken out the microscope to more closely examine it all.
His documentary will air for the first time at 8 p.m. CDT Sunday, the latest installment of ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” film series.
Schnack recently took time out to visit with the Tribune’s Dan Wiederer for a deeper discussion about his approach to the film and what he took away from his thorough recounting of the summer of 1998 in Chicago and St. Louis.
(Some questions and answers are edited for clarity and brevity.)
Here in Chicago, you’ve got a tough act to follow after “The Last Dance” rekindled this city’s Bulls glory. What were your thoughts on that film, and did it strike you in any way with your piece “Long Gone Summer” that there is this overlap with these two very big pieces of sports history in both time and place — the summer of 1998 in Chicago?
I watched “The Last Dance,” and it was cool to revisit all that in that series. I didn’t know ESPN had that project in the works until I was about a year into trying to get my film made. So it struck me then as this incredible synchronicity that these two stories were based in that time period. And clearly for baseball to have a moment that felt big like the (Michael) Jordan run with the Bulls in that summer was super significant to the sport. It was great to see that playing in the same time period.
When you set out to make this film, what were you most interested in exploring within that very memorable summer and the historic home run chase?
I’m always interested in revisiting things that people think they know the story about. So that was a big part of it — to try to find out things I had forgotten or things I didn’t know even though I had followed it pretty closely. 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.
That is something that has forever struck me, that massive chasm between how that summer of 1998 felt in the moment — with the adrenaline, the excitement and really the happiness — and how it is viewed and interpreted all these years later with what we now understand. How would you describe that contrast for people, between the energy of ‘98 and the sort of understandable scorn that comes with retrospect?
What I’ve found in making the film is that everybody’s views are very different on that. There are a lot of conflicted feelings. Some people say: You know, it doesn’t really matter to me. I have my warm memories. I know what it felt like when it was happening. And all of that was and is real to me. That was a real experience. But then there are those who think it was all fraudulent. To me? I always find this comparison a little awkward. But I made a film about Kurt Cobain and in part I made that film because I felt like through the haze of his death and his drug use, people didn’t really know about what was meaningful about him at the time Nirvana was becoming big. And what did it feel like for someone of that generation talking about the things he was talking about, singing about the things he was singing about? To me, it’s important to truly understand these moments in history by putting you back into what it was then. And then you can start to unpack it and deal with all of the things we now know and the things that have happened in the time since. So hopefully it’s a more true conversation we can have after the fact. At least that’s certainly one of the goals I had in making the film.
There were only about 15 minutes or so remaining in the film when the black light really started to shine over the performance-enhancing drug subplot of the story. As a director, what was your challenge, and what was the decision-making process like determining how to balance all that?
The challenge is you’re setting out to make a two-hour film for television. So we have a limit to our time. There are so many storylines I wish we could have included. For someone who covered Sammy or knows the history of the Cubs, there was a lot of his story with the Cubs that we just didn’t have the real estate to get into. I would have loved to have spent more time on Ken Griffey Jr. too. We try to give him his due as much as we can. But that’s the challenge when you have a set time limit to work with. Certainly, if it was a 10-part series, we’d be having different conversations about what each episode would look like. But this wasn’t that. Ultimately the challenge is to try to give context. The challenge is to try to give a variety of voices their say. And the challenge is to tell people some things about the use of steroids as well as the use of supplements, most of which were legal at the time and some of which still are and how that might have clouded people’s perceptions of the various things people were doing at the time.
With Sosa and McGwire, you obviously have two guys with very different personalities. In making this film and having the opportunity to sit with them, what left an impression on you about that part of the equation? And when you look back, how did that, in some ways, help shape the theatrics of that summer of 1998?
That’s one of the things that made the summer what it was. Honestly. You had two very different guys who somehow came together as competitors and then also as these friendly warriors for the cause of baseball. What I was struck by in interviews was that I felt like I was seeing a different side to both of them. I didn’t find Sammy to be just as happy-go-lucky as he had been during the 1998 season and interviews I had seen previously. And with Mark, I was just struck that he really came to reveal a lot about himself that he never really talked about before. It was interesting that these two guys were still very different as individuals but even in different ways than I had perceived them during that summer.
Today, McGwire seems to have a certain pay-it-forward mindset, wanting to, in his words “pass on knowledge” from his greatest triumphs and biggest mistakes. What do you make of that later-in-life approach he has?
I don’t want to try to get too deep into his head. But it does strike me that he is somebody who understands what was wrong and also understands how he can continue to be a positive force in an around baseball. He has certainly done that as a coach. If you talk to anyone from any of the teams that he has worked with, he has been a very strong, very capable hitting coach and a bench coach later with the Padres. That shows his commitment to what you’re talking about, that want to pass on the knowledge. Mark was never flashy. It was hard to find photos of him in his roles as a coach. He was never a guy who was really out there in the media. And Tony La Russa says in the film that he (McGwire) never wanted to be the main guy talking. And I found that really interesting and refreshing. This is one of the most important baseball players of the past 25 years, and he spent another decade almost in the game as a coach and he really did it with his head down without needing much attention on what he was doing.
On the flip side, Sammy has always loved the attention. And he has had that kind of unwavering stance in refusing to acknowledge directly the personal wrongdoing in his career. How did you process that?
Again, we couldn’t fully dive into some of the things that happened with him and the Cubs at the end of his time there. He did speak with us in his interview about feeling like he didn’t handle the final day in Chicago (in 2004) the way he wishes he would have. He has taken some responsibility for that. But the steroids piece is a really tricky piece. It is. Before Mark talked about his use, there had been a lot of investigative stories. There were eyewitness accounts. We don’t have any of that with Sammy. So I’m always a little hesitant. Everybody is pretty convinced that he did something. Yet, as the film says, aside from the New York Times report (in 2009 that implicated him for a failed PED-test during the 2003 season), we don’t know. So I’m a little uncomfortable that we’ve just decided that Sammy is guilty of steroid use. And at the same time, does it make sense for him to say more? I don’t know. I think he feels like he has said he didn’t use steroids. And he finds the repeated accusations and questions to be an insult. But he would have to answer that question directly.
When it comes to the “Did he or didn’t he?” discussion and the suspicion and everything else, what do you make of how little that affects his happiness in life at this stage?
Mark wanted to be back around the game. He wanted to rejoin the Cardinals as a coach and be part of baseball again. With Sammy? I think certainly he wants the recognition for his accomplishments. He would like for the Cubs to acknowledge how much he gave to that team. But aside from feeling disrespected, I think he otherwise feels like he has set up a good life for himself. And he doesn’t want to feel as if it is on him to reconcile something that maybe isn’t as important to him — other than the recognition he feels he should get.
There are people who covered Sammy or played with Sammy or were around Sammy for lengthy periods of time who acknowledge that the sort of effervescence and charm and magnetism he clearly had in 1998 was different from maybe the egotism and self-absorption that seemed to become a part of him later in his career. Do you have any sense for how that ‘98 season and the attention that came with it changed him?
That’s hard for me to know, not having been around him back then. I did find it interesting that there is an ESPN “Outside the Lines” report that centered on Sammy’s fall from grace with the Cubs immediately after his last season. And Steve Stone said something to the effect that “When you create Frankenstein, you can’t be surprised when he tries to burn the village.” I think that’s there. There seems to be a realization that Sammy was treated as the superstar on the Cubs that he was. He was the guy who was attracting enormous crowds and attention and bringing in revenue. And with that, what Sammy asked for he typically got. That’s a very different scenario than what Mark McGwire had. He was somebody who turned down a multimillion dollar salary at the end because he felt he couldn’t perform to the level that he believed he should. Those things happened over the course of a few years. And that changed Sammy’s relationships with people in the organization and on his team. And when he wasn’t performing on the same level, it was easier for people to rebel against him and take note of the more challenging aspects of his personality. But I will say this: I had forgotten about the Cubs’ playoff run in 2003 where everybody is still cheering Sammy pretty hard came after his corked-bat incident. People talk about that corked-bat incident as if it was the final straw with Sammy. It wasn’t. He still helped lead the Cubs to the playoffs that same year, and the fans were still pretty happy with him. It was later on that many of those things built up and caused difficulty.
Obviously, we all remember that McGwire finished the 1998 season with 70 home runs and the record. And Sammy had 66. Because of that I think it’s easy to forget that on the final weekend of the season, the home run chase is tied, and Sosa actually takes over the record solo ever so briefly on that Friday night. What was your lasting impression from making the film of just how competitive that chase was and how it really remained riveting and entertaining until the final day of the season?
Oh yeah. I mean, that final weekend is insane. It really is. But the thing that I had completely forgotten was that August game at Wrigley that we spend time on in the film. That was the day Sammy went ahead of Mark in that game, only to have Mark hit two more home runs in the same game to tie him and then surpass him. What’s funny is I showed that to Mark and even he didn’t remember that Sammy had gone ahead of him. He was like, “I don’t remember that at all.” That, to me, is so indicative of what happened that year. Sammy would tie Mark in a day game and then Mark hits another one that night. I don’t recall the exact number. But there were 18 or 19 times where they both homered on the same day. It was remarkable. Both in the way that Sammy would keep coming at Mark, but if Mark had a down stretch or a slump of a week or so and Sammy would get hot and get close or tie him or go ahead, Mark always had something inside of him mentally that pushed him and allowed him to go back up. That was an incredible part of that summer. The question I asked Mark was: “Would you have hit 70 without Sammy right behind?” Most people I talked to think he would not have, that Sammy was an important driver of that record.
Lastly, if there were one Sosa subplot that you would have devoted time to if you had been afforded 10 or 15 more minutes, what was it you would have wanted to include? And when your audience reaches the end of this film, what do you hope they’ve learned or considered or thought more deeply about?
Part of our initial proposal and something I discussed with Sammy from the beginning was that I loved the idea of him being this sort of surprise participant in this major baseball storyline. I wanted to keep him out of the story as much as possible until his June moment, just to show what a shock it was that it wasn’t Griffey. It was this other guy. In terms of Sammy, I wish we would have had a little more time to get into what he meant to the Dominican Republic at the time and what he meant to the Dominicans in the U.S. and how that was important. Obviously we would have liked to have spent a little more time on both players in terms of what happened after that summer. If we could have. But we do our best with the time we have. As far as what I hope people take away? It’s easy to make anybody into a cartoon character. We can make people just one thing, and this is the only thing they are. And that becomes a really easy shorthand. But people are complicated. And people have good and bad qualities. They do things for great reasons and for selfish reasons. We let Bob Costas go on at length at the end of the film just trying to point to those complications. But I think Sammy is complicated, like a lot of people. Still, I hope people won’t forget everything he did for the city of Chicago and for the Cubs organization during that stretch of three or four years when he was on top of the world and willing to take everybody along with him.