MARK MCGWIRE TALKED a lot about The Baseball Gods during his playing career, a sure sign of someone who treats the game with a solemnity it doesn’t deserve. He was never more publicly grave than during the 1998 season, his finest moment, when he couldn’t go three words without reminding everyone how monumentally, crushingly difficult it was to do what he was in the process of doing.
He hit 70 homers that season, destroying a record that had stood for 37 years and setting one that would stand for just three. Outwardly, he enjoyed very few of those homers. After every game, he stood at his locker, gaze trained in the distance, eyes narrowed, a soldier walking point, searching for snipers.
“I feel like a caged animal,” he said at one point, and even though he was criticized for complaining about something the rest of us were celebrating, he wasn’t wrong. There was pressure, and McGwire wore it like a cast-iron overcoat.
I stood in front of that locker after a game more than 20 times that season, and each time McGwire emanated a unique brand of pain. He deflected often, suggesting that we talk to his St. Louis Cardinals teammates, going so far as to point around the room and list their names and contributions, sounding like the world’s most dour emcee.
In the 162-episode dramatic series that became the 1998 season, that was McGwire’s role: the brooding, team-first giant who just happened to possess a singular skill he never seemed to embrace. He motivated himself by locking the door and pushing the world away.
SAMMY SOSA DID not worship at the altar of The Baseball Gods. He blasted salsa music from a boombox at his locker before games, drowning out whatever was running through the clubhouse speakers (chosen, by decree of TBG, by that day’s starting pitcher).
Sosa talked a lot about being the shoeshine boy from the Dominican who hacked his way off the island to smile and hop his way to fame and fortune. He hit bombs and bounced sideways out of the batter’s box like he was sliding through a narrow doorway. When he reached home plate, he unleashed an elaborate series of hand gestures that even McGwire found joy in repeating. In 1998, on his way to a 66-homer season that would stand (for three years) as No. 2 in history, Sosa couldn’t go more than three words without reminding everyone how much fun it was to do what he was doing.
When McGwire hit No. 62, breaking Roger Maris’ single-season record, Sosa was standing in right field in Busch Stadium, and he sprinted from his position to home plate to hug McGwire. Many of his Chicago Cubs teammates fumed at the break with decorum, but in the summer of ’98, it was deemed best to shut up and let it ride.
That was Sosa’s role: the comic-relief sidekick, assigned to play a simplistic stereotype in service of the man who was preordained to play the lead. He motivated himself by throwing open the door and inviting the world in.
THE HOME RUN is baseball’s most violent and spontaneous act. There is an element of defiance, even dismissiveness, in sending a ball over the fence and out of the field of play. And the home run accomplishes everything baseball allegedly doesn’t; it creates stars, exposes personalities, generates digestible highlights.
In 1998, McGwire and Sosa engaged in a season-long quest to take down Maris’ single-season home run record of 61, a competition that is the subject of “Long Gone Summer,” a 30 for 30 documentary premiering Sunday. By July of that season, the home run chase became more than baseballs flying over fences. It was a piece of performance art, a morality play and a precursor for what the game would become. This was the beating heart of baseball’s steroid era, and it’s clear there was something stronger than wholesome Midwest air and good old-fashioned momentum coursing through the veins of the two men captivating the nation. But for the most part, we weren’t overly interested in complications. We were along for the ride, and it was a lot of fun.
“I think it’s just a fascination with the home run and the power that’s come about the last couple of years,” McGwire told me at the time. “People are shaking their heads, thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ They don’t understand it.”
He understood it, of course, and his understanding was the root of his nearly pathological desire to deflect attention. The paradox is rich: The man Tony La Russa described as a “back-of-the-room guy,” whose sole desire was to merge seamlessly into the clubhouse furniture, went to extralegal attempts to set himself apart. He became a human exaggeration and, in the process, elevated himself above everyone in the game.
His teammates were collateral damage, but McGwire was a master of clubhouse diplomacy. He constantly apologized to his teammates for the imposition, and he followed every milestone homer — 60, 61, 62, 70 — by signing a box of a dozen baseballs for each teammate.
Still, there were so many media members in the Cardinals’ clubhouse over the final two months of the season; every day it felt like a convention. We soon ferreted out McGwire’s closest friends on the team, and we created separate groups in our minds: those who wanted to talk about McGwire; those who would talk about McGwire but didn’t particularly enjoy it; and those who wanted nothing to do with any of it.
After one game, there was a crowd of 20 to 30 reporters surrounding catcher Tom Lampkin, whose friendship with McGwire and overall conviviality made him a regular stop on the Tour of Lockers. As Lampkin spoke, he was interrupted by pitcher Kent Mercker, who was hollering from across the room. “Hey, Tom,” Mercker called out. “Your house burn down or something?” Lampkin shrugged and laughed, and Mercker threw his hands up and said, “This is nuts. That dude didn’t even play today.”
BEFORE 1998, Sammy Sosa had successive years of 36, 40 and 36 home runs. Before 1998, Sammy Sosa drove in more than 100 runs in each of those three years. In 1995, Sammy Sosa hit 36 home runs, drove in 119 runs and stole 34 bases, achieving just the 22nd 30-homer, 30-steal season in the history of baseball.
Sammy Sosa was a star. Sammy Sosa got MVP votes. And yet, in “Long Gone Summer,” McGwire says of Sosa, “I knew he was a player in our league.” McGwire didn’t know anything more about him until he hit 20 homers in June.
Those 20 homers created a home run race that nobody saw coming. McGwire was coming off a 58-homer 1997 season, and ’98 was set up to be a season-long coronation. The difficulty of hitting 62 homers was acknowledged — savagely, onerously, gruesomely difficult — but it was considered McGwire’s fate. Somehow, Sosa barged in, kissing his fingertips and bombing out to his spot in right field at Wrigley on a dead sprint as if he couldn’t bear the thought of wasting a split second of the adulation awaiting him.
By July, they were co-stars. And when the Cubs and Cardinals played a two-game series in St. Louis on Sept. 7 and 8, the two were being driven on a golf cart — with police officers jogging behind, like a bizarre scene out of North Korea — to a joint news conference near the right-field corner of Busch Stadium. McGwire had 60 homers, Sosa 58, but the scene was engineered to make them seem like summer-ball buddies rather than intradivisional competitors. They sat together and played their ascribed roles. Sosa served as a shield, laughing and joking and cajoling McGwire to see slivers of light amid the darkness. He was credited with lifting some of the pressure from McGwire’s shoulders and bringing out the big man’s lighter side. He also pushed him, because beating Roger Maris had become secondary to beating Sammy Sosa.
THERE IS AN entire language unique to the baseball cheat. You still have to put in the work. (True, but it’s far easier when the body is chemically engineered to recover quicker.) Steroids don’t help hand-eye coordination. (HGH has been proved to help eyesight, though.) PEDs can’t make a bad hitter great. (No, but if you’re good at it to begin with, it definitely helps.) La Russa was fluent in this language. McGwire was too.
“Everyone looks at my body,” McGwire told me in ’98, “but I use my mind more than my arms.”
McGwire never had to answer the tough questions that season. There was one scare, the andro scare, when a reporter from The Associated Press wrote about a bottle of androstenedione that sat on the top shelf of McGwire’s locker. It wasn’t a steroid, necessarily, but it was close enough to raise suspicions. More than 20 years of media self-flagellation later — what should we have known and when should we have known it? — it’s probably accurate to say everyone involved got swept away by the eagerness to believe.
“Long Gone Summer” depicts McGwire as a man who retains his unique ability to blend defiance with ignorance. It wasn’t illegal is a standby, as is Everybody was doing it. McGwire subscribes to both philosophies. Major League Baseball has largely forgiven the main characters of that PED era. McGwire, after retreating from public view for several years after his retirement, gave a tearful public apology as a prelude to becoming a hitting coach for three big league teams. Barry Bonds works for the Giants, and Alex Rodriguez might buy the Mets. Bud Selig and Tony La Russa are in the Hall of Fame. And Jose Canseco is free to roam Twitter and run for president on the long-neglected army-of-robots platform. (Finally, someone gets it.)
Sosa, whose thirst for attention wore on his teammates, has paid a higher price. He is not welcome at Cubs games or events, despite carrying the franchise for many of his 13 years with the team. In 1999, the year after the chase, he hit 63 homers, drove in 141 runs and played in 162 games. The team lost 95 games and yet drew more than 2.8 million fans. But in order for Sosa to return to Wrigley Field, owner Tom Ricketts has demanded some form of contrition. If Sosa does not admit to PED use — and apologize in a manner that suits current club ownership — he will continue to be shunned.
Setting aside the moral and competitive issues raised by PEDs, for a team owner — even one who entered the game after 1998 — to demand contrition is laughable to the point of insult. For all the shadings and half-truths and outright lies of the steroid era, consensus can be found in the following five words: Ignorance was incentivized and monetized. The landing spot of McGwire’s 70th home run — slightly above and behind the left-field bullpen at Busch Stadium, hardly Class A real estate — was quickly transformed into Suite 70. It was sold out for every game in 1999, with 70 seats at $70 apiece, nearly $400,000 a year. Nobody apologized for accepting money that was predicated on an alleged fraud.
Baseball history can be plotted through an undefined original sin followed by acts of recidivism and penitence — maybe unsurprising, given its puritan roots. This pattern can be difficult to follow; McGwire and Sosa supposedly saved the game from the sins of the ’94 lockout, three years after Cal Ripken Jr., who broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak, supposedly saved it from the same sin. It’s difficult to say who saved the hardest, and the question itself — Who saved baseball this time? — feels as much like an accusation as a compliment, especially now, as the game cracks its knuckles and limbers its neck in preparation for another Category 5 public relations disaster.
There’s no question, however, that McGwire and Sosa played a role in changing baseball. The analytical revolution that began in the early 2000s turned home runs from accessories to staples. What was monetized in ’98 became institutionalized in less than a generation.
THE MOST MEMORABLE moment in “Long Gone Summer” is so subtle it can’t be accidental. As the homers begin to blur into a mélange of hypertrophic forearms and dumbfounded pitchers, McGwire is shown hitting a tape-measure shot against the San Francisco Giants. To this point, every teammate and opponent has practically dripped admiration for McGwire. He’s special, he’s humble, he’s the big redheaded American ideal. Nobody, it seems, can get enough of McGwire.
But as he’s rounding the bases on this particular home run against this particular team, we get a glimpse of the particular brand of salvation created by the summer of ’98. The camera shows Barry Bonds standing in the outfield. It lasts barely a second, but that’s plenty. This is the thin, fast, mustachioed Barry Bonds, the guy who was the most complete player in baseball for the entire decade of the ’90s, and he’s standing out there with his arms folded. The look on his face is both disgusted and satisfied. He’s the detective who just bore through the lies to solve a gruesome crime.
You can track a couple of decades of baseball history in that look. Knowing what Bonds knew then, and what McGwire knew then — and what the rest of us would soon find out — you can pretty much read what was going on behind his raised eyebrows:
If this is how it’s going to be, fine. Everybody buckle up.