For two hours on Sunday, University of Missouri School of Journalism graduate AJ Schnack will take baseball fans back to the summer when he regained his love for the sport.
Schnack, the director of ESPN “30 for 30” documentary “Long Gone Summer,” premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday on ESPN, grew up in Edwardsville, Illinois, listening to the longtime KMOX St. Louis Cardinals radio broadcast duo of Jack Buck and Mike Shannon.
But after moving to Los Angeles shortly after graduating from MU in 1990, his love for baseball started to fade. The Cardinals of the early ’90s rarely peaked above .500, and the work stoppage in 1994 cast a dark shadow on the sport.
Then came 1998 ... and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
“When (1998) happened, I didn’t imagine for a second that I would get to make a documentary about it,” Schnack told the Missourian. “I was just watching it as somebody who had grown up in the St. Louis area (and) had been a Cardinal fan.”
A 58-home-run season in 1997 had McGwire within range of Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61, set in 1961. He joined the Cardinals from the Oakland Athletics at the trading deadline in late July 1997, so ’98 was his first full season playing in the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Sosa, who hit 36 home runs in 1997, emerged in ’98 as something of a surprise candidate to topple the record, too.
“I remember while (McGwire) was still in Oakland, I think it was in ’96, maybe, they changed the outfield dimensions at the Oakland Coliseum,” ESPN investigative reporter T.J. Quinn, a Missouri School of Journalism alum who covered baseball in the late ’90s and is interviewed in “Long Gone Summer,” told the Missourian. “I remember when White Sox players went out for batting practice, the first thing I heard a guy say was, ‘Oh, my God, McGwire is going to hit 70 home runs here.’ He was already the standard. Two years before that, people were talking about McGwire being the guy to break the record.”
What ensued in ’98 was the greatest home run chase in the history of baseball, a chase that ended with both players surpassing Maris’ record and giving Schnack a new reason to watch his hometown team.
“This just kind of reconnected me with everything I loved about baseball, everything I loved about the Cardinals,” Schnack said.
Almost two decades later, Schnack pitched the idea for a documentary reliving that season to ESPN. For the next three years, he organized more than 40 interviews, including McGwire and Sosa, who sat down with him for 2½ hours.
In addition to Quinn, MU School of Journalism graduates Jenifer Langosch (now at MLB.com) and Rick Hummel (the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) were interviewed for the documentary. Chicago Tribune baseball writer Paul Sullivan graduated from Missouri with a BA in English and was also interviewed for the film. Wilco singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy, who grew up right outside St. Louis in Belleville, Illinois, composed the music.
“People were starting to feel more comfortable at looking back at it and trying to both celebrate it and also be aware of what was going on in baseball at the time,” Schnack said. “I think we probably got to the point where we were all capable of doing that.”
Since their careers ended amid multiple accusations about their use of steroids — McGwire ultimately admitted he used them; Sosa has denied he did — the two players have rarely discussed that season with the media. But Schnack knew the documentary couldn’t be made without including the performance-enhancing-drug issue. At the same time, he wanted to take viewers back into the excitement of the season before “we unpack everything” that is now known.
Kamau Bilal, the director of photography for the film and an MU professor in the visual studies program, said the willingness by both players to discuss that season with Schnack speaks to the director’s character.
“I think they knew that it would come up in the film at some point,” Bilal said. “AJ gracefully handled all of that stuff. That comes with experience. Everybody handled it really well, and that speaks to AJ’s ability to do it. There’s no way you could do a film like this and not talk about (steroids).”
In addition to interviewing the two main subjects, the crew traveled across the country finding teammates, journalists and other key figures from the 1998 season.
“The trips started off as four or five days at a time, in little chunks once or twice a month,” Bilal said. “Then we had one very gargantuan trip in the summer in 2019 where we went through, I don’t even remember how many states. It was the kind of trip that really messes with your body because you’re in all these different time zones so very fast.”
Although the trips were busy, Schnack had a clear vision for what the project needed.
“We would shoot our interviews, and then if we went to do b-roll, he knew exactly what we were going after,” Bilal said. “He was going in very targeted. Like, ‘So, we’re going to go shoot at Wrigley today. We’re going to get some b-roll, but we’re not going to overdo it. We know what we’re going to use this material for.’ That just makes you, as somebody working on the crew, feel much more relaxed and engaged because you understand that the person in charge of it understands his vision and what he wants.”
Quinn, a Mets beat writer for the Bergen Record at the time of the home run chase, graduated from MU’s Journalism School in 1991, one year after Schnack did. Schnack served as the Missouri Students Association president, while Quinn headed an organization called Students Organized Against Racism. The two worked together on a few projects and saw each other around Brady Commons on occasion.
Although Quinn has followed Schnack’s work since the two left college, they hadn’t spoken until Schnack approached him for an interview. Quinn has covered key stories involving performance-enhancing drug use over the years and discussed that, along with other topics, in the interview for the documentary. But he doesn’t know what appears in the version that will premiere Sunday night.
“Even if it wasn’t the story that I was so close to, I’d want to watch it just to see what AJ did,” Quinn said.
The documentary was originally scheduled to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, but the festival was canceled because of COVID-19. In the midst of the current so-far-unsuccessful negotiations between MLB and its players on a deal to play baseball this summer, the documentary reminds fans about a season filled with hope and promise.
“I think that what that summer is and what it was for baseball overpowers that steroid use,” Bilal said. “What it did for baseball can’t be denied. The memories everybody has of that summer, you can’t take those things away from people.”