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[youtube]5ivQ9caPvOs[/youtube] According to one online source, the chief export of the Dominican Republic is its 10% share of the world’s supply of ferronickel. Any baseball fan, however, knows that the island country’s primary export is not ferronickel, but baseball players (‘Peloteros’ in Spanish).
As narrator John Leguizamo points out partway through this new documentary, 20% of all players currently signed to major league contracts are from the Dominican, a country with an overall population lower than that of Los Angeles County. While many Dominicans live in abject poverty, a scant few, if they’re talented and lucky enough, can make untold riches playing baseball in America.
This dichotomy is the subject of this simultaneously entertaining and disheartening documentary about the training, preparing, coddling, and hopefully, signing of young ballplayers. MLB’s rules state that a player can not be signed before the age of 16, which causes no end of chicanery in the pursuit of riches. Because teams want to maximize the amount of time players are under team control, a player not signed at 16 is likely to be overlooked the following year. As such, lying about one’s age is rampant, as is investigation about it.
This movie is about two youngsters, both of whom are followed by cameras as draft day, July 2nd of their 16th year, approaches.
One, Miguel Sano, currently listed as the Minnesota Twins’ top minor league prospect, is the “can’t miss” prospect, long acclaimed for not only his incredible natural ability but also for poise and maturity that belies his age. That poise in his case is a mixed blessing, as he’s forced to go to absurd lengths to prove he’s only as old as he claims, embroiled in a seemingly endless investigation as his draft day comes and goes. In the end he does indeed sign that multi-million dollar contract (as well as the largest bonus in Minnesota Twins history), but only after a lot of strain on the lives of Sano and his family.
The investigation into the age of the similarly (but less) talented Jean Carlos Batista, on the other hand, doesn’t turn out as well for its subject. One dramatic scene shows him on the phone turning down a contract that will pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars, thinking that better offers might be right around the corner. Yet once doubts about his age are confirmed, even that original offer falls off the table for good. Now in the Houston Astros’ organization, Batista still faces an uncertain future, though the bonus money did arrive in the end, just less of it- and much later- than expected.
Everyone involved- from Major League Baseball (who have two official offices in the world- one in New York City and one in Santo Domingo) to the agents and trainers that start working with talented players while they’re still children, to the families of the players to the players themselves- look toward their own profit margin, and will lie, cheat, grovel, and in general do whatever’s necessary to get the greatest return. For every success story- a list of current Domincan players includes many perennial all-stars- there are dozens of kids that could have, should have, made it to the bigs, but instead were a year too late, overlooked and forgotten by age 17.
As movies, even documentaries, must feature a villain, Ballplayer:Pelotero has two. One is Major League Baseball itself, which is accused of delaying the investigation into Sano’s age to bring his price down, as well as controversial Pittsburgh Pirates scout Rene Gayo, who is accused by Sano’s family of colluding with baseball officials to keep the doubts, and investigation, going indefinitely. They even go as far as surreptitiously videotaping Gayo in their home, to prove that he’s used the ongoing investigation into Sano’s age, and the resultant lack of contract offers, to drive his price down, essentially forcing him to sign with the Pirates.
While at times it’s hard to tell who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, and who has whose best interests at heart, one thing that’s not in doubt is what’s at stake. The financial motivation of poor kids trying to raise their families out of poverty is portrayed more nobly than the attempts to keep international salaries at a level artificially lower than that of American-born players. Where there are riches to be had, it’s suggested, everybody has a hand out. But Major League Baseball’s power base has, and is not shy about using, the upper one.