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Reliving McGwire and Sosa’s ‘Long Gone Summer’ Is Exactly What Baseball Fans Need Right Now

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Baseball needed a bounce back. Fans weren’t coming out to games as often, thanks in part to the strike that wiped out part of the 1994 season and playoffs. The game itself was trying anything to spark an interest. In 1997 MLB debuted Interleague Play, hoping fans would show up to see teams that their club didn’t normally face. That worked to some extent, but nothing would rally the game like the Summer of 1998 did. 

MLB capitalized on the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run race during that summer and now ESPN is hoping to do the same. On the heels of The Last Dance, the network has produced Long Gone Summer about both sluggers’ chase for history. The film documents the twists and turns of the 1998 season, with interviews from both McGwire and Sosa. It will also brush the subject of PED’s and whether or not the luster is off the pumpkin as a result. 

Film Review: Long Gone Summer (ESPN 30 for 30) - LaughingPlace.com

Chip Caray had a front row seat to it all. He along with Steve Stone were the Cubs television team in 1998 on Superstation WGN. He had a bit of a different take when it came to the home run chase really saving baseball. 

“I don’t know if it’s fair to say Sosa/McGwire brought baseball “back” per se. Baseball was always there, and for the fans who were able to look away from the labor disasters of previous years, that never changed”, Caray told me via email.  “However, for the casual fan, or better yet, the skeptical, ‘still-mad-at-my-partner’ fan, the HR chase of 98 captured their attention and yes, brought many of them back to the game they loved more than being mad at it.”

After a lot of back and forth in the chase to 62, McGwire would get there first. In a game against the Cubs in St. Louis he hit the epic blast. Now it was no ordinary home run obviously, it put some pressure on the broadcasters at the time. Do I script it? Do I let it come naturally? That’s always a dilemma in big moments in broadcasting. Joe Buck who was also around a lot of the homers the Cardinals hit that year, was calling it for Fox.  The record breaker caused some issues in the way it got out of Busch Stadium. 

“Down the left-field line, is it enough? Gone! There it is, 62. Touch first Mark, you are the new single-season home run king!” Buck said before letting the pictures take over for the next 3 plus minutes.  The silence ended with Buck saying, “Folks, it couldn’t happen to a better man. You will always remember where you were when it happened – 8:18 central time, Sept. 8, 1998.”

Buck admitted after the game that he had a different call prepared and written down on his scorecard. But the moment happened so fast, he had to improvise.

“That home run shot he hit was the old script buster,” Buck said. “I had come up with, ‘There it goes. Here it is. A new single-season home run champion with 62. Mark McGwire as he floats around the bases and into the history books.’ I even had it written on my score sheet to make sure I wouldn’t mess it up,” said Buck after that night’s game. “The long drawn out call that you dreamed up some day away from the ballpark, forget about it. That’s one you watch and hope you get call right.”

Caray agreed and he was equally challenged by the shear nature of how the ball got out. 

“When it went over the fence, I was surprised–like the 50,000 people there–that he did it,” Caray recalled. “All I could think to say was, ‘He did it! He did it! He did it!’ I think that’s what everybody in America was saying when the ball went over the fence. And then I finally figured out, ‘OK, he did it. Now shut up,’”.  Caray though, did not have anything etched on his scorebook to remind him of what to say in that moment.  “My own personal feeling is, if you plan something to say, it’s going to sound . . . planned. I think the great beauty of this game is its spontaneity.”, said Caray. 

Knowing now, what we didn’t know then, like the use of PED’s, didn’t change the moment for many. The race was compelling, McGwire got off to a hot start that season and Sosa heated up late to make it a race in September. Sosa hit a then record 20 home runs in June, McGwire hit 16 in May and 14 in September. There were twists and turns that made it special at the time for Caray in ’98. 

MONTHMCGWIRESOSA
MARCH/APRIL116
MAY16 (27)7 (13)
JUNE10 (37)20 (33)
JULY8 (45)9 (42)
AUGUST10 (55)13 (55)
SEPTEMBER15 (70)11 (66)
TOTALS7066

“Look, there are a lot of people who want to rewrite their memories, and look at 98 through the prism of revisionist history. I am NOT one of those,” Caray said. “In the moment, 98 was a total blast, if you’ll pardon the pun.  Two guys going toe to toe for two great franchises who share baseball’s best rivalry and it captured everyone’s attention. It was great theatre and like baseball fans everywhere, we as broadcasters and fans were pulled along in the vapor trail.” 

“That was all over baseball a lot more than we knew at the time.”, said Buck during a 2018 sit down with Graham Bensinger. Buck isn’t convinced to this day that it’s fair or even possible to pick out those that did and those that didn’t.

I covered that Cubs team on occasion and you could sense the buzz around the team and Sosa. He came off as the jolly underdog that was loving every minute of the attention and accomplishment. Sosa was the loveable character, while McGwire came off as the grumpy grandpa of the chase. Sosa was available to the media and the swarms of cameras and reporters near his locker everyday was proof. 

Ex-Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa Looks Completely Different Now

“I thought he (Sosa) played his part in the HR chase perfectly.”, observed Caray.  “Endorsements came rolling in, he was everywhere. I would never say he was “Jordan-esque”, but overnight, he became an International baseball icon. Pretty amazing for a guy that had a lousy year in 1997, and grew up shining shoes and selling oranges in the DR. Anything I needed to ask of him, he was willing to answer and most of all, he treated my wife and infant daughter extremely well. I’ll never forget that.” 

Buck came to the defense of McGwire and the attitude he seemed to give off. “Mark was always misunderstood to me, he was kind of the reluctant superstar at that time.”, Buck told Bensinger in 2018. “That’s kind of how he was genuinely so when he became the new single season home run guy and he’d be around St. Louis and people would come up to him he was just like ‘what do you want?’, he didn’t buy into all that stuff. I give him a lot of credit for it.” 

Some do forget that in the midst of this epic home run race was a playoff race being run by the Cubs. They would eventually win a wildcard spot with a victory in Game 163 v. the Giants. They’d run into the Braves though and were swept out of the playoffs. But during that year, Caray would have some memorable games and other statistical milestones to call including Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game at Wrigley Field in May. 

With all that went on during the ’98 season, it was Caray’s first year with the Cubs. He headed to Chicago with the idea of working with his grandfather, Harry Caray. The elder Caray unfortunately passed away in February of that year. So, facing Chip now was a rather daunting task. 

“1998 was a huge year on a personal level, obviously, going to Chicago and trying to do the impossible, ie follow Harry Caray. I mean, there is/was no “replacing’’ him.” Caray told me.

He did have some allies to help him through, “luckily I had Steve Stone, Arne Harris (producer/director), John McDonough (Cubs VP of Marketing), Ed Lynch (Cubs GM) and Andy MacPhail (Cubs President) in my corner, they all understood (way more than I did) the enormity of the job I had ahead.”, said Caray. “I had Harry’s name…but I wasn’t him…luckily, all those guys allowed me to be ME. Best of all, we had a fun, entertaining team that captured the city’s imagination….and as you know, nothing helps a new broadcaster than to break in with a good team.  And the 98 Cubs were exactly that.” 

Chicago Cubs: What if the 1998 Cubs had Greg Maddux?

So was the 98 season in general. So much went on, the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays debuted as franchises, Wood struck out 20, David Wells threw a perfect game, Bud Selig was named the 9th Commissioner in baseball history, and Randy Johnson was traded.

All of that paled in comparison to “Big Mac” and “Slammin’ Sammy” assaulting the record books and hitting home runs like they were going out of style. It is indeed a Long Gone Summer, which should be a lot of fun to relive. 

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BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!

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Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.

For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.

If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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