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Movie reviews: Pelotero + Road to the Big Leagues

By change, I stumbled across two documentaries about baseball in the Dominican Republic recently. Here are some thoughts on both of them.

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Pelotero (2011)

Dir: Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, Jonathan Paley

The economics of baseball and its relationship to the Dominican Republic have changed dramatically of late. Gone are the days when you could pick up an entire All-Star outfield for less that the cost of one late-round draft pick from an American college [Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ortiz all signed for $10,000 or less]. Now, players, agent, parents and coaches know their value, and the free market has resulted in an explosion of bonuses. It's a way out of poverty, but the huge potential rewards lead to shady practices, with players lying about their age, in order to get the top signing fees awarded to 16-year-olds, the youngest age at which they can sign to major-league teams.

It's against this background that Pelotero unfolds, following the stories of two shortstops, Miguel Angel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista, as they head toward the July 2 signing date. The former is one of the top players; the latter, is slightly lower down the scale, but is still looking for a pay-day that will set up his widowed mother in relative comfort for the rest of her life. Sano has a full-on agent, but Batista has a buscone, a trainer/agent who has funded the player's entire career so far, and will take up to 35% of the signing fee, as payment for years of services rendered. There's a grueling series of tryouts, and increasing nervousness for all involved as the big day approaches.

And that's not just for the obvious reasons. Sosa's talents are so great, that there's serious doubt as to his age, and MLB launches an official investigation to see if he is who he claims. That involves checking his paperwork, bone scans to make sure they are consistent with a 16-year-old, and even DNA tests to make sure his mother is who he claims. This is for very good reason: we say one example last week in Tampa, when the player formally known as Fausto Carmona pitched against us - he was actually Roberto Hernandez, and three years older than he claimed.

There's another case D-back fans probably remember. Relief pitcher Tony Peña, was originally known as Adriano Rosario, who was actually Peña's nephew, again, three years younger. [This led, among other things, to Peña being perpetually late for spring training in his time with us, due to visa issues!]. Coincidentally, his Dominican agent, Rob Plummer, is featured in the documentary, as he is also the agent for Sano. Here, the investigation drags on, leaving Sano in limbo, effectively tainted, when many others have signed, and one team agent seem to resort to dubious tactics to get him to commit. Meanwhile, Batista gets an offer from the Astros, but holds out for more.

It's an even-handed documentary, that doesn't take sides or, particularly paint anyone as a villain. The teams want the best possible talent, at the lowest possible price. The locals want the maximum possible return for their skills or investment. Even the team agent, at the end, defends himself by issuing a statement which says, "Everyone involved was guilty of doing what their job descriptions demand," and that's a fairly accurate summary. What we see here is a case-study of human nature in action, and it shouldn't be much of a shock that scruples go to one side when a life-changing event is within reach. The final outcome is surprising - not necessarily in a good way.

It's a serious moral minefield. On the one hand, baseball offers undreamed of wealth. But on the other, that leads to deceit, and not just about ages (or by the locals). Steroid use is rampant, and prospects basically have to abandon education at age 12 to pursue the dream, even though the odds are long against them getting any kind of contract, and even longer against them making the big leagues It's estimated there are 100,000 prospects at any time in the DR: 105 players born there appeared in the majors this season. Those who don't make it are discarded without a second thought. It's a hard, harsh world.

Perhaps the most savage indictment is that MLB refused to be interviewed by the film's makers, which isn't exactly the behavior of an organization at ease with the "factory farm" for young players it has created. There has been discussion about having an international draft, to remove the impetus for corruption. But while the money remains, the temptation to bend the rules will unquestionably be present as well.

[Pelotero is currently available for streaming through Netflix]

Road to the Big Leagues (2008)

Dir: Jared Goodman

Road is considerably shorter, at 52 minutes, and covers chunks of the same territory. However, if focuses less on the signing process as such, and instead includes both ends of the spectrum. It goes from kids playing in the street, with whatever "equipment" comes to hand, all the way to superstars David Ortiz and Vlad Guerrero, who have made it big, but still come back to the Dominican Republic, to hang out in their childhood neighborhoods. The two extremes meet, when a grinning Ortiz explains that, while growing up, he used to swipe the heads off his sister's dolls, remove the hair and use them as baseballs!

That perhaps illustrates another difference between the two films. Pelotero treats the game very much as a job or a business, and that's a valid assessment. Road, on the other hand, does a better job at capturing the joy of the game, its life and those who play it. Even if that comes in little moments, like Vladimir, the street-playing kid, who wants to be Ortiz, arguing a call in a game, with a grin on his face, or the recently-signed prospects, crammed into a dorm, showing off their dance moves to each other, and forming an impromptu rap posse. It's kinda good to be reminded that while money is nice, it's the love of the game that is often as much a motivation.

There are, however, darker moments, and the film doesn't shy away from the identity theft issue - they talk to one of the MLB investigators, who estimates that over one-third of the documents with which they are presented, have some irregularity. The film also covers one such "irregularity": a player where the investigation found him to be older than he claimed, and who was dumped by the Red Sox, who had signed him, as a result. He still harbors dreams and big talk of pro ball, but it's clear he's a pariah, and is hustling for a living as a low-level - and, if the film is to be believed, not very good - loan-shark. So it's not all smiles and sweet swings.

Where there is a gap, is the obvious disconnect between signing and super-stardom. It seems like the players (and the film-makers) are almost unaware of the struggles that will follow in the minors, with the vast majority not getting even a cup of coffee in the majors, never mind becoming stars. [If you want to see that aspect, you need to watch Sugar, which soco reviewed in 2009] You get the sense that teams could do more to prepare players, with the English language tuition show here cursory, shall we say. As (the fully bilingual) Mrs. SnakePit snorted, "If they're going to get someone to teach English, it should really be someone who can speak the language."

There's also an interesting segment earlier in the film, when Vladimir's teacher is interviewed, making a heartfelt plea for students to stay in school, and get an education, rather than quitting to focus entirely on baseball. I think that's an area where US players, most of whom have a college degree, definitely have a better chance of success if they fail to make it, or after the game. There's a sense, common to both films, that the young prospects here are seen by the major-league teams as nothing more than a commodity - in Pelotero, one of the trainers explicitly compares them to sugar-cane, to be grown and harvested.

Both films are recommended. Pelotero has a bit more of a narrative structure, with its narrower focus on two individuals, but as mentioned, Road provides a better idea of the spectrum of Dominican baseball, and is more upbeat in its approach. I enjoyed them about equally, and appreciated the glimpse into a corner of the game that's about as far from Chase Field as can be imagined.

[Road to the Big Leagues is available for free viewing through Hulu.]