Tuesday, September 4, 2012


An article in yesterday's SF Chronicle prompted me to write about Pelotero.  Although the article was essentially a DVD review and written by film critic G. Allen Johnson, it appeared in the Sporting Green section.

I saw Pelotero (alternate title Ballplayer: Pelotero) in July at the SF Film Society (SFFS) Cinema which no longer exists.  The SF Film Society ended their relationship with New People World after one year.  I don't know what will become of the cinema (aka Viz) although they are listing the North American premiere of Tiger & Bunny - The Beginning on September 29.  The SFFS Hong Kong Cinema series runs September 21 to 23 at the Viz so their relationship is not completely asunder.

Pelotero; documentary; directed by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin & Jonathan Paley; narrated by John Leguizamo; (2011) - Official Website

Pelotero is a documentary about young baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic.  With a population of under 10 million, the DR produces an oversized 11% of the MLB players.  Among the more well known DR players are Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz and the Oakland A that never was, Manny Ramirez.

MLB has some unique rules regarding the signing of prospects from the DR.  Rather than a draft, it's more like those movies where homesteaders are lined up in covered wagons, some guy fires a pistol and they all race to stake their claim.  For reasons which were left unexplained, July 2 is the magic date in the DR.  On that day, MLB teams can sign players who are at least 16 years old.  Why July 2 and why 16 years old?  I don't know.  For the populace of a poor country like the DR, signing an MLB contract (with associated signing bonus) is a ticket to prosperity.  To hear Leguizamo tell it, families invest their dreams and hopes into their teenage sons with the goal of them signing with the MLB.

Pelotero follows two such young men - Miguel Angel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista.  Both of the boys have come up through baseball academies which are essentially full-time baseball training facilities where the boys learn their craft in exchange for handing over part of their future signing bonuses.  This seems like a situation ripe for abuse but the film portrays the academy coaches in positive lights.  Both boys refer to their coaches as second fathers.

Whenever there is a lot of money flowing into a poor country, greed (or more charitably, the will to survive) kicks in.  MLB teams were originally attracted to the DR because they could sign players cheaply.  As the signing bonuses have climbed into the 7 digit range, the DR isn't as cheap as it used to be.  On the supply side, kids (and their families) will do just about anything for a million dollar payout.

One curious side effect of 9-11 was that the US State Department became more strict with issuing work visas.  In the years since 9-11, many MLB players from the DR have returned to spring training with earlier birthdates and in some cases, different names.  The kids lie about their age in order to get larger signing bonuses although MLB has instituted a number of rules to guard against it.  It seems awfully risky to bet millions of dollars on a 16 year old boy's ability to continue improving.  It would seem to be safer to sign older players who are more mature and disciplined and farther along in their baseball development.  Regardless, the film makes clear that July 2 is the high water mark in terms of signing bonuses and the longer a player waits to be signed, the smaller his bonus will be.

Both Sano's and Batista's ages are questioned.  In one case, it appears the Pittsburgh Pirates scout in the DR starts a whisper campaign in order to scare away competition and drive down Sano's signing bonus. In Batista's case, it looks as though he and his family lied and forged documents to make him appear younger than he is.  Although his motivation is understandable, I could empathize with the sense of betrayal Batista's coach felt.

Ostensibly about baseball, Pelotero really examines the chasm between rich and poor.  In the pursuit of money, the poor sacrifice their self-respect and the rich sacrifice the poor.  I found Pelotero to be a fascinating film.  It was an "inside baseball" look at baseball with a liberal dose of populist melodrama added for good measure.

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