Film Review: Ballplayer: Pelotero

<i>Ballplayer: Pelotero</i> answers the question on some sports fans&#8217; minds&#8212;Why is it that 20 percent of American professional baseball players are Dominican?&#8212;by tracking the rise (and sometimes fall) of hopeful young players in the D

Baseball is more than a pastime, or even a metaphor, in Ballplayer: Pelotero, the documentary about Dominican Republic baseball players by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jonathan Paley. Like the master pattern of the sports doc Hoop Dreams, it follows two young athletes, here Miguel Angel Sanó and Jean Carlos Batista, in their search for sports fame and fortune. But it also exposes a system through which the players must ascend or—actually—try to barrel through.

Our sympathies are with both kids, but for different reasons. One, Batista, transfers all his longings for the father he lost as a child onto his coach; the other, the supremely talented and self-possessed Sanó, is the sole hope of his very large family to bounce out of some extreme poverty.

But Ballplayer is distinct from the usual “making it” sports stories with Cinderella overtones, for it presents a particular thicket of corruption that the MLB (Major League Baseball) board, plus local desperation, has engendered in the Caribbean. The air on the island is filled with baseball dreams, not just for those who train from an early age once their talent has been spotted, but for their families who see their kids as a ticket, a means of class ascendency. It also presents a not very pretty picture of some coaches and scouts, one of whom unabashedly declares about those in training camps, comparing them to an annual crop, “When it grows, you sell it.”

But the cards can be stacked against the players, who by local rules must be signed by a certain date, July 2, and while they are still sixteen. (Every Major League team has a scout in the Dominican Republic, and an MLB office is in Santo Domingo.) If there is any narrative gap in the film, it’s the unclear connection between MLB and the local office; the filmmakers do try to pierce the veil of the local board, but—not necessarily their fault—can’t get onsite footage.

It sort of doesn’t matter, since we see the effects of some board rulings, particularly as Sanó has to wait to “sign” and his price tag gets diminished by each day (it was once almost $5 million, but he ends up with much less) while he undergoes medical tests such as bone scans to prove he is not older than he has claimed. Even the regal Sanó gets discouraged as he sees that baseball is a business, and he is a commodity. The movie asks if some of the delay is on purpose, to lower the price of players, but to be fair also includes a cautionary tale of age fraud. When you see some of the home conditions of these kids, you can’t really blame them.

Still, Ballplayer is never dreary, as the players obviously love baseball, even despite the grueling training hours, shown in extended sequences. (Guess I’ve watched too much produced TV sports, but I would have liked a few more bits of the thrill of “making the play.”)

Unexpectedly, this viewer was forced to rethink assumptions about objectification. Victimization is the wrong word here, for these guys know the terms when they go in: They want to play, they want the rewards, they know the score. But when you see Sanó’s distended shoulder in an effectively shot close-up, it drives home the fact that even if the players make it to the big leagues, with a lucrative contract, there is still a big price to be paid. For this reason alone, women should see the film; use of body parts is not gender-exclusive after all.