Daily struggles to achieve greatness, battering your body to bits, lying about your age, tumultuous relationships with your family and mentor, and vying against some of your closest friends and enemies for that elusive contract. This is no “Black Swan.” It’s baseball. Dominican baseball, to be exact.
And while 2008’s fictional “Sugar” provided some insight into the Dominican Republic’s training practices, the new documentary “Ballplayer: Pelotero” provides an even deeper snapshot into what these young men face on a daily basis.
Sitting on the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic lies just east of and adjacent to Haiti. The nation suffers from gross underemployment and unemployment, with more than 42% of the country below the poverty line. The country’s main exports have traditionally included sugar, coffee, and tobacco. How long before “baseball players” are added to the official list?
What: “Ballplayer: Pelotero“
Where: SF Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post Street (Webster/Buchanan), SF
Tickets: $9-11 online or at the box office, as available
Since the influx of Dominican talent like Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou, Miguel Tejada, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Vladimir Guerrero, the Dominican Republic has developed into baseball’s hot house, breeding potential professional baseball players from amongst the country’s poor population. Upon the influx of Dominican talent in the 80s and 90s, Major League Baseball (MLB) rethought its international talent scouting strategies and in 2000, opened up a second office in the DR (the first is in New York City). Today, of the 30 MLB teams, 28 of them have baseball academies in the DR.
Pelotero means ballplayer in Spanish. In “Pelotero,” directors (Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, and Jonathan Paley) follow two young men (boys, really. They are, or say they are, 16.), Miguel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista, as they look towards July 2nd–dubbed Millionaire’s Day or Dominican Christmas–the day they become eligible to sign MLB contracts.
In the DR, trainers (buscones) travel the country, looking for the most promising young talent they can find. They take these students in, many times at 10 or 12 years of age, feeding, teaching (baseball, though. Not math or science), and housing them until they’re ready to sign a contract. The trainers bear the costs until signing day, where 35% of that signing bonus could go back to the trainer. All of the practices, tryouts, scouting: it all leads up to this one day, the July 2nd after the student has turned 16, where teams vie for their chosen prospects.
Astín Jacobo Jr., a trainer and coach, guides Batista towards signing day. Jacobo sums up the DR training ground best. “Baseball… when you deal in baseball, young kids–it’s like when you go and harvest the land. You put the seed in the land, and then you put water in it. You clean it. You do all of this and then, when it grows, you sell it. It’s just the way it is.”
And buying young talent in the DR is cheaper than in the states. You can sign a very talented DR teen for a $40,000 signing bonus, mere pennies for an MLB team. A similar American prospect may not sign for that little cash. And as a result, “Pelotero” brings forth a very telling statistic: today, 20% of MLB’s major and minor league players hail from the DR. Yes, you read that right, one out of every five players–major and minor leaguers combined–hails from the tiny Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic.
With young Dominican talent rising quickly, MLB teams are throwing wads of cash at the hottest of these young prospects. Just a year before filming, in 2008, the Oakland A’s signed 16-year-old Michael Ynoa for a record $4.25 million. That’s an organization record, surpassing Mark Mulder’s signing bonus in 1998. Yet in 2009, every pelotero, including Sano and Batista, want to be the next Ynoa.
To garner that MLB contract, all of a player’s documentation needs to be in order, most importantly being one’s age. A player must report his actual name, age, and birth date. And MLB must approve the documentation and each player’s signing bonus.
Several MLB players have admitted that they’d falsified documents or borrowed identities to get ahead in the game. San Francisco Giants’ closer Santiago Casilla entered the MLB under a borrowed identity of Jairo Garcia. In actuality, Leo Nunez, a Miami Marlins reliever, is Juan Carlos Oviedo. And Fausto Carmona is Roberto Hernandez Heredia.
“Pelotero” introduces us to young Miguel Sano as he tries out with multiple teams and soon finds himself at the center of a potential bidding war. But when a corrupt scout oversteps his bounds and gets greedy, the media and MLB begin to question Sano’s age. Sano and his family then must step aside and wait as MLB conducts its own investigation for conclusive proof that Sano is in fact 16 and who he says he is.
In a country filled with every technological gadget known to man, this would be simple. In the Dominican Republic, where things are penciled in, erased, and written in days later, this can add additional challenges to an already overwrought system. For Sano, the promise of a life-changing future threatens to slip through his fingers. Incidentally, Batista also finds himself at the center of an investigation, albeit with a different outcome.
The documentary doesn’t focus on MLB’s Dominican and Latin American-related reforms since 2009, but it does bring baseball ethics and soul to the forefront, questioning what’s fair and square within the game.