The good people in charge of promoting and distributing the new documentary Ballplayer: Pelotero, which opens in select theaters today, were kind enough to send The Common Man a copy to review. So TCM sat down last night after the kids conked out to check it out.
Pelotero follows the 2009 efforts of two 16 year old Dominican prospects, Miguel Angél Sano and Jean Carlos Batista, to sign professional contracts with Major League clubs, in spite of questions about their ages. Sano, in particular, is poked and prodded throughout the movie, under investigation after rumors circulate that he’s actually much older than he claims to be.
The film effectively shows how ill-prepared kids like Sano and Batista, as well as their families, are to negotiate in the shark-infested waters of Dominican baseball, and how a monopolistic system that is rife with corruption can be used to drive down bonuses and to take advantage of young, poor athletes. As Batista’s trainer points out, the system is designed to churn out and sell a product, “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 the water in it, you clear it. You do all of this, and then, when it grows you sell it. It's just the way it is.”
Sano is particularly compelling as the biggest prospect in the D.R., who is expected to break the record for highest signing bonus. But as the film passes, and the rumors begin to mount, you see his increasing frustration with the lies and innuendo being spun around him, and how the situation seems to orchestrated by one buscone (the Pirates’ Rene Gayo) to drive down his price to a point where the Pirates can afford him. This includes allegedly telling Sano he should admit to being 19 years old (even though all available evidence shows that’s not true) to end the investigation into his birthdate and sign right away with the Pirates. Gayo himself is caught on a hidden recording telling Sano that, if he will sign with the Pirates, Gayo can make the investigation go away and Sano can avoid a suspension. The MLB investigator, who is supposed to be impartially looking into Sano’s birthday, also allegedly urges Sano to sign with Gayo. According to one of Sano’s relatives, “To me the most serious thing was when the MLB investigator says to the mother, recommends to the mother that he sign with that team. The MLB investigator is there simply to investigate. How is an MLB investigator going to tell you if you sign with this team there won't be any problems? Why would an investigator care which team you're going to sign with. This is a mafia, understand? A mafia, that's what it is.”
And that’s a fairly accurate representation. And MLB’s operations in the Dominican have created a lawless atmosphere where young players openly talk about subtracting years off their ages and grown men in Range Rovers bully poor teenagers with no repercussions or comeuppance.
The film itself is well shot and do a good job of showing the negotiation process and the hoops that elite prospects have to jump through. Sano and Batista, and especially Batista's trainer are incredibly compelling characters, driven by the need to elevate themselves (or their baseball academy) out of poverty. Sano's agent, while seemingly a good guy, is also a little creepy as he showers Sano with gifits and declares "It's always Christmas when I come around, isn't it?" The film does a terrific job of showing how seedy this world is.
The documentary fails on a couple important levels, however. First, while it strongly implies that buscones like Gayo are corrupt and actively lying to and about prospects, it never gets the goods on him. Meanwhile, there are many other cases of buscones and trainers who are corrupt (such as the recent buscone who passed his own son off as 4 years younger than he actually was, or the White Sox and Nationals employees who have been caught skimming bonuses) that the film never even mentions.
And this speaks to the other central problem with Pelotero: It’s far too limited in scope. Yes, by focusing on Sano and Batista we get an intimate portrait of two compelling players, their trainers and their agents. But we also miss a lot of opportunities to explore other peripheral characters. Batista talks about how much he misses his mother, but we never spend much time with her to get a sense of who she is and why Batista would miss her so much. Likewise, Gayo becomes a caricature, waddling fat and obsessed over Sano. At least being able to explain how a character like Gayo gets his start and how he operates would be extremely helpful in helping to understand how these figures operate.
Also, Sano and Batista are both considered prize prospects, but there are several other players on who work and train with them who are (presumably) far less prominent. Show how younger players are brought up in this system, and how some of them wash out would also do a lot to make the accomplishments of both of the documentary’s main characters more meaningful. It’s not like the film is too bloated already to add more depth either. At just an hour and 19 minutes to the last of the end credits, there’s plenty of time to fill the story out more.
But overall, the tremendously interesting story, natural drama and intrigue shine through these weaknesses, and the documentary will appeal to baseball fans who want to see how the sausage gets made in the D.R, and who are already angry at the idea of young people being exploited. It also will be especially interesting to both Twins and Astros fans, for whom Sano and Batista are now prospects. You should absolutely go see it, and then hope that the filmmakers eventually follow up with a look at how MLB’s new system to curb the bonuses handed to guys like Sano and Batista is screwing over poor brown kids even more.