Two ferocious sluggers battling it out in the baseball record books. A storied season highlighted by roaring round-trippers, later tainted by the presence of performance-enhancing drugs. This is the scene painted by ESPN’s newest 30 for 30: “Long Gone Summer,” which premiered on Sunday. While baseball is on hiatus, fans can use the film to reflect on the summer of ’98.
Sosa and McGwire chase Maris
Entering the 1998 season, the single-season record for home runs stood at 61. Roger Maris set that mark 37 years prior in 1961.
At first, it seemed like a three-man race. Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. burst out of the gate. Then, Sammy Sosa broke onto the scene with 20 long balls in June.
Eventually, Griffey cooled off. Finally, on August 16, Sosa matched McGwire’s 47 dingers. The stage was set for Sosa and McGwire.
“The McGwire and Sosa home run chase I think captured people’s imagination,” said former Chicago Cubs play-by-play announcer Chip Caray who appeared on ESPN WRUF’s Sportscene with Steve Russell show to discuss that summer. “Fans in Chicago couldn’t wait to see Sammy go toe-to-toe with Mark McGwire.”
McGwire breaks the record, comes out on top
Ultimately, McGwire finished ahead of Sosa with 70 home runs. Sosa settled for 66. Each beat Maris’ longstanding record, but McGwire became the first to reach 62.
“McGwire at that point set the record,” Caray said. “He’s the guy that shattered the mark. He’s the guy that got there first and he deserved the accolades and the attention.”
However, Caray explained that Sosa deserves credit for making the home run race what it was.
“I think Sammy brought Mark out of his shell,” Caray said. “I think they truly enjoyed the head-to-head competition and I think it gave Mark McGwire some release to have Sammy Sosa around.”
Maris fought for his record alongside teammate Mickey Mantle. It is interesting that McGwire and Sosa, who played for rival teams (the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, respectively), chose to become friends.
Roger Maris lived in Gainesville after his retirement in 1968. His son, Kevin, is the Oak Hall high school head baseball coach. Also on the Sportscene radio show, Kevin Maris discussed meeting McGwire and Sosa in person while also witnessing their effect on each other.
How the Long Gone Summer earned its name
Unfortunately, the ’98 season lacks the shimmer and shine it once had. Both players faced major backlash after many players of the time were found to have taken PEDs.
“It’s a shame for our sport,” Caray said. “As a fan who loved that season and loved what those players represented, I could care less about the Steroid Era.”
The MLB welcomed McGwire back into its circles after he admitted to using steroids. On the other hand, Sosa insists he did not use any PEDs. The Cubs have not invited him back to Wrigley Field.
In addition, Barry Bonds surpassed McGwire’s record only three years later. The slug fest between McGwire and Sosa seemed to be overshadowed. And, the fallout and aftermath of the ’98 season makes it a distant memory; but for others involved as well as the fans at the time, it is worth remembering as a part of baseball history.