Baseball may be America's pastime, but, in the Dominican Republic, baseball is far more than that. For Dominicans, baseball has become a source of national pride. And for young men in that country who seek to play professionally, it's also become a source of pressure. Co-writers and co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck depict this through the individual story of a Dominican pitcher drafted into a minor league baseball team in what will no doubt be the best sports film of the year.
In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Brandon Harris reveals that HBO Films, the company behind Boden and Fleck's movie, supported them in their desire to tell this story as authentically as possible. As a result, the two ended up casting a real Dominican baseball player who had never acted before in his life. His name is Algenis Perez Soto.
Soto plays Miguel Santos, whose nickname is Sugar, a nickname his friends like to tease. The 20-year-old Sugar is trying to bulk up. He lifts weights and trains everyday, all to throw a better curve ball. His dream is to see Yankee Stadium in the snow and drive a Cadillac car. At the start of the film, Sugar is playing at a training camp in the Dominican Republic.
Harris' interview informs us that the training camp is the one run by the Washington Nationals in San Cristobal, which earlier this year was shut down due to a recruiting scandal. The film even features Jose Rijo who was recently fired by the Nationals. One might question as to why a United States Major League baseball team needs a training camp, which not only trains but specifically scouts for players, in the Dominican Republic.
According to the PBS program Independent Lens, which studied Dominican ball players, the Dominican Republic supplies more players to U.S. baseball teams than any other country. The Los Angeles Dodgers built Campo Las Palmas in 1976, and since then two dozen other Major League teams have followed. By itself, Campo Las Palmas, in Santo Domingo, the country's capital, has produced at least 35 players. That's about one a year since its opening. With the 20 or so other camps, that's hundreds of players that have come from the Dominican Republic.
Some of the more famous Dominican-born players include Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, and Miguel Tejada. All of them started out in the small, impoverished nation and have gone on to Major League status. However, for every success story, there are hundreds who don't make it. There's a good number that play in the minor leagues, but even those are limited.
Those Dominicans who do come to the America to play in the minors often are barely out of high school. The camps teach English and some social customs, but most Dominicans come northward lacking education. In the PBS program, Rafael Gonzalez, a baseball scout, recounts seeing an 18-year-old Dominican with big muscles and long arms and saying, "He has the potential to make a lot of money for someone."
And, like with many, athleticism and the money to be made from it trumps academics. Baseball scouts then use the promise of big money to lure a lot of those Dominican kids to drop pursuit of higher education for pursuit of baseball dreams. Except, the dream is highly, highly competitive and most will never ever realize it. Some end up returning to their countries defeated or burned out. Others stay in the U.S. and become vagabonds. This is what Sugar faces.
People keep saying it's just a game, but for Sugar it seems more important. Sadly, it's the only way out of poverty, so sometimes young Dominicans will chase after baseball out of desperation, and Soto does a brilliant job of portraying that. He also does a brilliant job of portraying the loneliness Sugar experiences due to the language barrier and due to Sugar's realization that he's disposable.
If his game starts to decline or he gets injured, there's always someone just as good or better ready to take his place. Sugar is even pushed to use performance-enhancing drugs. You come to understand his desperation and how he'll do anything to hang on, even taking those drugs, and he probably wasn't the only one.
Sugar is a sweet kid, charming and polite. There are moments where he loses his sweetness, and watching this film, I was able to taste that. While Boden and Fleck don't focus on the exploitative nature of the situation, they smartly maintain their eye on Sugar and his individual choices and leave the audience to discover this field of dreams really is filled with lost souls.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and brief drug use
Running Time: 2 hrs.