The most captivating summer in modern baseball history got the 30 For 30 treatment with Sunday’s debut of Long Gone Summer, the new ESPN documentary that looked back at the iconic 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. But if you tuned in hoping for a massive revelation or two, most especially about the use of steroids, you were sadly disappointed.
That’s because McGwire’s admission that he took steroids is a decade old, rendering the likelihood that we were going to get new and titillating tidbits from Big Mac about as slim as the bat always looked when we waggled it with his gargantuan arms.
On the other hand, Sosa—who in recent years has largely deflected when asked about allegations that he, like so many players during his days on the diamond, took performance enhancing drugs—balked at the chance to set the record straight. We touched on that and more with our six quick takeaways after watching Long Gone Summer live.
Sosa avoided answering directly whether he ever took steroids
Let’s get to the part many—we’re safely assuming here—tuned in: to see if Sosa would admit or definitively deny he ever took steroids.
Sosa has previously denied juicing, most prominently in 2005 when he testified as much in front of Congress. But many baseball fans assume the Cubs outfielder from 1992-2004, who was once caught using a corked bat in a game, took PEDs because they were so ubiquitous in baseball during 1990s and early 2000s and because he hit an absurd amount of home runs over a four year period out of nowhere. Plus, Sosa was named in a New York Times report in 2009 that stated he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in a voluntary MLB test six year earlier. Still, when asked about the widely reported reluctance of Cubs' ownership to invite him back to Wrigley Field until he comes clean about past misdeeds, Sosa demurred.
“Why do they worry about me when pretty much everybody during that era did it?” Sosa said. “I’m a really happy person, my friend. I’m good, I’m happy.”
McGwire, meanwhile, came clean about his steroids use in 2010 and expressed further regret in the documentary that he took Androstenedione.
“First of all, it was stupid to do. Pay the consequences, still do,” McGwire said. “It was only brought up to my attention that it would help through some injuries. By no means did I need to do it for strength purposes. And I regret doing it. The bottom line is if there was drug testing back then it would’ve never happened. I don’t encourage or want anyone to follow [my] footsteps. It sort of sucks.”
On August 21, 1998, it was reported by the Associated Press that McGwire had a bottle of Androstenedione in his locker and he acknowledged he took the supplement billed as a safe alternative to steroids. While certain steroids were outlawed by baseball at the time, the game had no testing and Androstenedione was not specifically banned. So McGwire, doing whatever he could to stay on the field, took the supplement to help his body endure the grueling baseball season. While he didn’t hide from the fact he took Andro, he squirmed having to constantly answer all the inquiries about it.
“I really didn’t know how to really answer those questions because it was like one of those things that obviously didn’t turn out to be a cool thing to do,” McGwire said. “But it wasn’t like I was the only guy in the locker room that had something in their locker.”
McGwire knew he could break the record
Breaking one of the most hallowed records in all of sports wasn’t going to be easy, but in the mind of McGwire, it was attainable. And after clubbing a career-high 58 bombs in the 1997 season when he split time between the A’s and the Cardinals, the buzz heading into the 1998 season—smack dab in the middle of what would become infamously known as the Steroids Era in baseball—was whether McGwire could seriously flirt with becoming the new single-season home run king and surpass Roger Maris’ iconic mark of 61 homers set in 1961. McGwire believed he could.
“I would set goals and I would write down these numbers of what I wanted to accomplish and I would put it in my safe in my home in Southern California and I wouldn’t look at it until the season was over with,” McGwire said. “I had in my mind what I knew I had to average. I had to average over 10 home runs a month, which is hard to do. But I really thought it could be done.”
The first baseman got off to a red-hot start to the season, reaching the 20 home run plateau before Memorial Day weekend. At one point, he was on pace to club a preposterous 79 home runs. The only thing between him and history was getting enough good pitches to hit.
Sosa wasn’t an obvious choice to compete with McGwire
Baseball observers knew McGwire could flirt with Maris’ record because he had hit 39 or more home runs in a season six times before 1998 and three times he had bashed 49 or more. Ken Griffey Jr. was another easy choice to chase Maris since The Kid was a sweet-swinging left-handed slugger who had hit 49 and 56 home runs in the ‘96 and ‘97 seasons. But nobody thought Sosa, who had only hit 40 home runs once in his career before ’98, would ever challenge one of baseball's most cherished records.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Sosa said.
Sosa dramatically entered the race between McGwire and Griffey by belting a MLB-record 20 home runs in June to finish the first three months of the season with 33 dingers. The poor kid who shined shoes for money growing up in the Dominican Republic had burst onto the scene and he loved the newfound fame. Sosa became obsessed with doing enough to keep leading SportsCenter and the other highlight shows.
“Let me see if they show me today,” Sosa said. “I have to continue hitting or they’re not going to mention me.”
McGwire credits his psychologist for helping him belt 70 home runs
McGwire was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1987 and was one of the most feared home run hitters in baseball during the late 80s and 90s. But some years in Oakland he had dealt with nagging, debilitating injuries and the pressure to stay in the lineup on a daily basis got to him. So he sought the counsel of a psychologist and it helped him belt 70 home runs.
“We were always taught to play through pain,” McGwire said. “If you can’t make the lineup that day because of little aches and pains, you’ll never hear the end of it. I decided to see a psychologist just to try and figure out who I am as a person. So I start peeling all these layers off, and as my psychologist would say, it just sort of overlapped into how can I take that and how I can I move it into my mind as an athlete.”
It certainly helped him in ’97 and ‘98 seasons when McGwire put up absolutely monster numbers smashing 128 home runs, driving in 270 runs, and helping revive the popularity of baseball from its darkest days after the game canceled the 1994 World Series over a labor dispute.
“He became a guy that really zeroed in, focused, and blocked out,” Tony LaRussa, McGwire’s manager with the A’s and Cardinals, said.
McGwire loathed all the media attention while Sosa loved it
Different teams, different backgrounds, different swings, and different dispositions when it comes to the media. As the race to 62 heated up and the media attention surrounding McGwire’s and Sosa’s pursuit of history intensified to levels the game had never seen, one player become prickly while the other was jubilant over the supersized attention.
McGwire was never known as being a dynamic personality before 1998, or the most media friendly ball player. That just wasn’t his style. But the constant gaze and scrutiny that came with the home run chase wore him down by August. Mentally, Big Mac felt fried.
“All the pressure was on me,” McGwire said.
He made a comment about the swarm of media surrounding him before and after every game made him feel like a “caged animal” and, McGwire said, “I got hammered for that.”
Meanwhile, Sosa was reveling in all the cameras and microphones shoved in his face. He embraced the attention. He wasn’t just a ballplayer playing in a massive market. He was becoming a celebrity. He couldn’t get enough of it.
“I enjoyed it. I was the new kid on the block,” Sosa said. “I could not be more happy. But everybody is different.”
During their historic run toward the record, the two sluggers would occasionally share a press conference when the Cubs and Cardinals squared off. But surprisingly McGwire and Sosa never had a conversation about their wholly unique experience chasing Maris.
“I never had time to talk to him about anything,” McGwire said.
After McGwire broke the record, the competition was just getting started
The first to 62 was one race. The other was to see who would finish with the most bombs and officially be crowned the new single-season home run king. Both guys took the pursuit seriously.
“The main focus for Mark and I was to break the record. Now it’s not about 62, it’s about who finishes first and second,” Sosa said.
The race was neck-and-neck throughout much of the season, especially after the All-Star break, but Sosa rarely owned the outright lead. Every time he would inch past Big Mac, McGwire would belt a homer or two retake it.
“All respect to Sammy,” McGwire said. “I enjoyed being pushed, but I’m not allowing him to finish on top.”
On September 25th, Sosa connected on his 66th homer of the season. Forty-five minutes later, McGwire tied him. It would be Sosa’s last home run of the season while McGwire, of course, would go on to belt four more dingers and become the home run king.
McGwire actually wanted to sit out the final game of the season because was exhausted. La Russa implored him to play. Don’t settle on 68 home runs, La Russa told him. If you look too tired, I’ll pull you, but go out there and play. You owe it to yourself, La Russa remembered telling McGwire.
Big Mac belted his 69th and 70th home runs in his final two at-bats of the season and after hitting his 70th, he winked at La Russa.
“I thought you were too tired to wink,” La Russa joked with McGwire.