The director of ESPN’s Long Gone Summer spoke with FanSided about his new film looking back on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s record home run chase in 1998.
An understanding of the rivalry between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs is built into AJ Schnack’s biography. The filmmaker was born in downstate Illinois, in Edwardsville, a place much closer to St. Louis than Chicago. He grew up a Cardinals fan but has family upstate who were Cubs fans.
That understanding is on display in his “30 for 30” documentary Long Gone Summer, which looks back on the summer of 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battled to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run mark. For Schnack, it was a joy to dig back into the one of the most famous seasons and storylines shared between the two clubs.
“I was surprised at how much stuff I hadn’t remembered or maybe had remembered slightly wrongly,” he told FanSided’s Mark Carman.
Long Gone Summer premiers on ESPN this Sunday, June 14th at 9 p.m. ET. Watch the full interview above.
Schnack first touched base with McGwire in 2017 and began talking to him about the possibility of telling the story. “It’s a lot to ask and it’s a lot of trust for someone to place in you,” the director said.
It didn’t take long into their formal sitdowns for Schnack to know he was getting a level of trust from McGwire.
“Once we started talking, I had done a bunch of research, I knew about 20 minutes in that he was telling me stuff that I had never seen him tell anyone before so I knew we had something special,” Schnack said.
When Schnack approached Sosa, the former Cub had a list of question he wanted to know about the project, before eventually joining in.
The documentary runs through both players’ backgrounds and how they arrived at ’98, before moving through the season, telling the story of how they pushed each other to the record.
In the final act, both sluggers do talk about a part of the story many will be looking forward to hearing about: their use of steroids.
“I told them both upfront that we were going to have to deal with it,” Schnack said. “That people wouldn’t take the film seriously if we didn’t address that aspect and the fact that this event took place during the steroid era.
“I think it’s very different between the two of them. Mark has I think spoken honestly about what he did, why he did it, when he did it. Sammy feels that he has stated for the record in front of congress that he never did it and I think he finds the ongoing questioning a little disrespectful I think to him and his career. I think just the fact that he has to discuss it is a bit annoying.
“I thought his answers in the film were illuminating to me. I had never heard him talk about it in that particular way before, which makes clear that there were a lot of players who were doing it but there’s been a lot of attention on these two guys to have something specific to say about it.”
While the two protagonists were willing to take it on to varying degrees, other people, like former MLB commissioner Bud Selig weren’t willing to appear.
“Bud did not want to participate,” Schnack said. “We asked. Would have loved to have gotten his perspective on it. He was not interested in revisiting that time period that helped get him in the Hall of Fame.”
While the film does touch on the questions of the Steroids Era, Schnack said he didn’t want to turn it into a full exploration of the period. The new film comes on the heels of ESPN’s successful The Last Dance, and Schnack said he would have needed a Jordan-esque 10 parts to do the full story of PEDs in baseball.
“[Barry] Bonds was definitely not something I wanted to try to do. Bonds to me is sort of like Canseco, in and of themselves they’re such huge stories they’re kind of their own film,” Schnack said. “It’s like the second you start really dealing with that then we’re in Last Dance territory, we’re doing 10 hours.”