The latest ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 documentary “Long Gone Summer,” about the McGwire/Sosa 1998 home run race, premiered June 14 and is available on-demand on ESPN+.
The film chronicles Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s storied 1998 home run chase that reinvigorated the sport following the 1994 MLB strike. For the first time, both men discuss that summer at length, including its lasting legacy and undeniable complications.
Front Row asked longtime senior coordinating producer Phil Orlins about what it was like to produce ESPN’s MLB coverage that legendary season. Orlins was the producer for the Sept. 7, 1998, Chicago Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals game when McGwire tied Roger Maris’ home run record of 61 in a season. It is the most-watched MLB game ever on ESPN (more than 10 million viewers).
What are your memories of the epic McGwire-Sosa home run battle that season?
The anticipation around Sosa developed later in the season, but I remember the focus on McGwire was intense all year. We covered McGwire’s BP [batting practice] as if it was the Home Run Derby. He hit his 55th home run of the season on a Sunday Night game at the end of August. It was a booming shot to center field off Dennis Martinez. We knew we were close and might get a chance to cover the record-breaking home run. I remember the crowd that day was so wild that I saw Bruce Springsteen slip into the ESPN compound to use our port-a-john.
It wasn’t just about the home run chase with McGwire. It was his Bunyan-esque physique, the fact that the crowds would show up for batting practice and the massive home runs. His every move was an event.
How did you approach producing that historic game, knowing there’d likely be a record audience, and what stood out to you that night from your vantage point in the truck?
It was one of the few times in live sports that we could precisely plan to execute a specific and brief moment of coverage. I remember many hours spent planning every shot in the hope we could nail the sequence perfectly – shots like Roger Maris’s son framed just over McGwire’s shoulder as he watched from his seat behind the 1B dugout.
After McGwire hit No.61, we traveled to Cincinnati a day early to be there to cover No. 62. We were watching from the hotel bar when McGwire hit number 62 on Fox. It was a momentous occasion, but I remember feeling the emotional letdown that the chase for the record was over.