The Major League Baseball death march being led by Commissioner Rob Manfred is sad enough. But watching the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “Long Gone Summer,” which premiered Sunday night, was even more sickening.
It’s disturbing that with the passage of time we seem to have learned nothing from the history of one of the biggest frauds perpetuated on the American sports public. Not only are we still seemingly ignorant of the truth, but blissfully so.
Just so we are clear — the Summer of ‘98 chase of Roger Maris’ single-season home-run record of 61 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was a fraud — all of it. McGwire was using a menu of steroids, including horse performance-enhancing drugs. After years of denying it, he admitted in 2010 that he was a user.
Sosa has never come clean, but he wasn’t clean when he tested positive in a 2003 baseball random testing program that was supposedly to be kept secret — you know, so you wouldn’t know about who was a fraud and who wasn’t — but was reported by the New York Times.
McGwire doesn’t hit 70 home runs in 1998 without the steroids. Sosa doesn’t hit 66 home runs that same year without the steroids. The whole Mark and Sammy show was a fraud.
If you watched ESPN’s fairy tale, the fraud was barely acknowledged, almost like an addendum to the story. And even the part that addressed the fraud was a fraud.
“There were no rules,” McGwire said. “There were no regulations.”
Heaven forbid that the filmmakers point out that, for one, steroids obtained illegally had been against federal law since 1991, and two, after that federal law was passed, then-Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a memorandum to all major league clubs declaring that steroids were banned.
That’s certainly an understandable oversight.
Then McGwire said this: “If there was drug testing back then, none of this would have happened.”
Somebody should have slapped him out of the chair when he said that. Not me, of course, but someone.
There is a lot of blame to share for the steroid era and the fraud that led to the Summer of ‘98.
But if indeed you buy into McGwire’s “someone should have stopped me” claim, the first place to look is the union that represented McGwire. The Players Association fought every attempt to institute stricter drug testing until their members got tired of being dragged before Congress and embarrassed on Capitol Hill.
There was perhaps one mention in the film about the players union.
We all were in on the fraud, myself included.
I followed McGwire from home runs 55 until 62, when he broke the Maris record, and again for the final weekend of the season against the Montreal Expos for home runs 66 to 70.
Looking back at what I wrote, I’m ashamed of some of the malarkey I was peddling. Like many writers, I should have been asking more questions. I remember being close to McGwire a number of times and thinking that he was so inflated, if you stuck a pin in him, he would pop.
The one redeeming part of that summer, for me personally, was that I got to spend many nights in St. Louis in one of the great bars in America, the Missouri Bar.
I’ve sobered up since and have come to realize that what felt good for us in 1998 should make us feel bad in 2020.
But many of us are still drinking the Kool-Aid, especially over at ESPN.
“Long Gone Summer” also perpetuates the myth that the phony McGwire-Sosa home-run chase saved baseball following the 1994-1995 strike.
That, too, is a pile of horse steroids.
Baseball attendance in 1998 was 70 million — a jump of seven million fans from the previous season. That’s an impressive jump, right? Surely evidence that shows the impact of the Summer of ‘98.
One thing — baseball added two teams in 1998, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who between them drew a little more than six million fans that year.
So the real number of more baseball fans drawn to ballparks around the game was about 1 million in 1998 — not very impressive, particularly when compared to the increase from the year before, when the game jumped by three million total from 60 million in 1996.
But what of the television ratings? ESPN reported that their regular season ratings were up 21% that year, more than any other season in the history of the network. Of course they were — people were indeed watching McGwire and Sosa.
Go beyond that — the impact beyond St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs games — and the numbers don’t seem to be there. One measure — World Series ratings.
In 1997, the rating for the Cleveland Indians and Florida Marlins (a team that had existed for five seasons) was 16.7, compared to the 14.1 rating the New York Yankees and San Diego Padres drew in the McGwire-Sosa year of 1998.
Not a fair comparison, since the Indians-Marlins went seven games and Yankees-Padres was a four-game sweep?
OK, let’s compare Game 1 ratings. The 1997 Indians-Marlins Game 1 drew an 11.3 rating. Game 1 of the 1998 Yankees, returning to the World Series after winning the 1996 title, against the Padres drew just slightly better, a 12.4 rating — hardly riding the wave from the McGwire-Sosa home-run chase that had just ended weeks earlier.
What saved baseball is not as dramatic, but far closer to the truth than what was being peddled in this fable.
Over 20 years, from Camden Yards in 1992 to Marlins Park in 2012, 20 new ballparks opened, drawing record crowds. The substances that saved baseball were bricks and mortar, not steroids.
No one is building 20 more ballparks in the next 20 years. What saves baseball now?
You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Podcast and on Chad Dukes vs. the World on 106.7 The Fan.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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