In the Dominican Republic, baseball is king.
We don’t need a documentary to tell us this. The list of big-time players with roots there — Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz — has long announced the level of talent and attention the sport cultivates. But how many of us knew that 20 percent of major and minor leaguers in the United States now come from there. And who’s paying attention to the good, bad, and ugly of how they are treated along the way?
That’s why we need “Ballplayer: Pelotero,” a well-crafted, bravely revealing little film that could be considered essential education for baseball fans. It’s just a bonus that the documentary is so entertaining.
“Pelotero” (the Spanish word for ballplayer) has the look and feel of many other modest films about athletes coming up through the “system.” It begins with shots of dusty ballfields and dedicated young prospects being put through their paces: They hit fat tires with bats to strengthen their swings; they shag fly balls and chase grounders deep into the evening, all while trainers and scouts keep close watch, adding up the potential profits in their heads.
“It’s like when you go and harvest the land,” one trainer says of the players he has helped broker for Major League Baseball. “You put the seed in . . . water it . . . and when it grows, you sell it.”
“Ballplayer: Pelotero” is full of such crass, unfiltered comments. Later someone says of a top prospect, “He smells like a major leaguer.” What he means is: “He smells like money.”
The documentary focuses on two teenagers, Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano, as both approach the critical July 2 international signing day when Dominican 16-year-olds annually become eligible to accept offers from major league teams. Players not locked up by that date drop significantly in value. Batista and Sano are expected to fetch sums in the millions of dollars (most say Sano is the top prospect on the island), but it’s 2009 and the film presents insiders who predict that MLB will do “something” to roll back rapidly escalating signing bonuses. You see where this is headed.
Sano and Batista are poor. Batista’s father died when the boy was 10, after teaching him to play ball and imploring him to take care of the family. Batista wears that responsibility like a hat full of stones — he’s a bright young man with shimmering eyes, but he doesn’t always seem emotionally equipped for the harsh realities of a career in baseball. His trainer, coach, and surrogate father is Astin Jacobo, who does seem realistic and genuinely invested, maybe not just for the standard 35 percent he will make if Batista is signed.
Sano is less mature (his nickname is “Bocatón” — Big Mouth). He’s a smiley-faced power hitter surrounded by extended family who hang on his every move, hoping (demanding, really) that he will be their ticket to a better life. There’s a thick sense of entitlement on both sides of the equation. Sano’s supporters insist he’s worth as much as $6 million. Major League Baseball says (indirectly, since the organization refused to participate in the film) he’s worth whatever the market says he’s worth, and bidders have a right to be certain he is the player he claims to be. When the league asks for extensive documentation of his age and lineage (birth records, school reports, bone scans, DNA tests . . .), Sano cooperates fully but the lingering uncertainty threatens his July 2 value. Anyone caught lying about such things is automatically suspended from the signing process for a year.
With the help of a savvy homegrown soundtrack and editor Mary Manhardt, “Pelotero” directors Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, and Jonathan Paley build the drama in a way that echoes 1994’s “Hoop Dreams”: Will any of these kids make it to the pros? Their film doesn’t deliver the kind of richly rewarding character portrait we saw in “Sugar,” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 2009 film about fictional Dominican pitcher Miguel “Sugar” Santos. But it makes us care quite a lot about Batista and Sano and even a few others, no small accomplishment in a fast-paced film of only 72 minutes.
“Ballplayer: Pelotero” credits Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine as an executive producer. He’s not in the film, and no matter what you think of his on-field abilities, his movie should be allowed to stand on its own merits. MLB says the film contains “inaccuracies and misrepresentations,” but it did increase regulation of the Dominican system after filming finished. A much-talked-about scene involving hidden-camera footage of Pittsburgh Pirates scout Rene Gayo plays out like an amateur-hour sting: Gayo allegedly offers to make the age investigation go away if Sano signs with his team. But the Sano family’s camera cuts out halfway through, so all that’s captured is the audio.
There are no pure villains in this film — nor heroes, for that matter. Almost everyone has an interest in the financial outcome of the process, and that includes the Dominican government, which shrugs off complaints about the MLB “monopoly,” which is pumping cash into the country, and all those who benefit, directly or indirectly, when a player signs. Are teenagers really being exploited when they are offered thousands and sometimes millions of dollars to hone their skills playing a game that could make them even richer in the years ahead? Or is this an unsustainable system that, like so much of pro sports compensation, begs to be revisited?
Ultimately that’s for MLB and its partners to answer. For moviegoers, at least for now, there’s a worthwhile documentary to get you up to speed.