Dirt streets. Zinc shacks. Barefoot children with baseball bats. Pelotero (Ballplayer 2012) is a story of perseverance and dreams, ones that might take these aspiring athletes to play in the major leagues.
The film, shot over nine months by co-directors Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jon Paley, tells the story of Major League Baseball scouts recruiting in the Dominican Republic. While the sport was created in the United States, "nosotros nos destacamos mejor que ellos" ("we just play the game better than they do"), one of the players said on screen.
What might sound like arrogance isn't just a case of inflated national pride. Dominican players make up 20% of the U.S. minor and major leagues combined dominating the list of foreign players in MLB for decades. In 2012 alone, 11% of all the players in the major leagues come from this small Caribbean nation. Thousands of boys compete every year for a spot, understanding that in an economically depressed country like the Dominican Republic, MLB may be their only chance to change their future.
The documentary, narrated by John Leguizamo, follows the story of two of the 2009 top picks in the Dominican Republic while the tension rises as July 2nd, signing day, approaches.
Jean Carlos Batista is a 16 year old short stop who moved into the dorms at Astín Jacobo's Baseball Academy in San Pedro de Macorís inspired to play by his father who died when he was ten. Miguel Angel Sanó, who trained at Moreno Tejeda's academy, is considered the top pick in the country.
The stories these young men tell are moving. With few options for improving their situations in life, the desire to lift themselves and their families out of poverty fuels their drive. They both said the first thing they'll do when they sign is buy their mother a new home. In this sense, the film pays homage to Hoop Dreams (1994) directed by Steve James. The central conflict is the same: How do young, black men find a way to improve their life circumstances with few options available to them? They soon realize professional sports, a multi-billion dollar industry, cares about the game, not the kids.
The word on the street was that Sanó might get a $6 million signing bonus, which would top pitcher, Michael Inoa's $4.25 million signing bonus with the Oakland Athletics in 2008, as the highest paid bonus for a Dominican 16-year-old player. Typically trainers also serve as agents with the exception of stars like Sanó who hire professional agents to represent them in the negotiations.
As July 2nd approaches, we see all that can go wrong. Rumors circulated that Sanó was lying about his age. MLB began an investigation that included blood, DNA, and bone marrow tests. If it is determined that Sanó is lying it will be a one year suspension from the game, which means he will be a year older when he is finally eligible to play, significantly reducing his ability to sign for the multi-million dollar bonus he is hoping for.
The suspense builds as Sanó's future, and that of his family, hangs in the balance. His family, lawyers, and agents all accuse MLB of collusion to keep his signing bonus down. Disillusioned with what he's seen, when asked if he would be willing to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates for $2 million, an offer which stings like an insult, Sanó responds "When no other team wants to sign you, what are you going to do? You have to say yes."
The unequal power relationship between MLB and these young, black men living in destitute poverty highlighted in the film puts into relief the long-standing, unequal economic and political relationships of power between the United States and the Dominican Republic, or any other country in the Caribbean, for that matter. The lies, collusion and coercion make it clear that MLB holds all the cards, sets the rules and determines the conditions under which these boys play ball. The film could have zoomed out a bit more offering more in the way of historical, economic and political context for those who aren't too familiar with life in the Dominican Republic. But over all, it nicely highlights the fact that with a lack of options on and off the field, MLB is still one of the best options for escaping poverty.
The film is well paced and the characters are endearing. You'll enjoy the film if you are a fan of the sport or if you are interested in the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean, and learning more about the lives of young, black men in the region.
Pelotero opened in twelve cities around the country this weekend and is available on iTunes and On Demand. The film is in Spanish and English with English subtitles. For more information check out the film's website here