Home Video Hovel- Ballplayer: Pelotero, by Aaron Pinkston
Ballplayer: Pelotero is a prime example of the American Dream — only the film tells the story of a group of young men from the Dominican Republic. As the film’s opening moments tell us, 20% of major and minor league baseball rosters are filled by men from the tiny island nation. This is a staggering statistic given that the Dominican Republic has about 2% the population of the country where Major League Baseball is mostly played and consumed. More than any other professional sport, baseball is economics. Because there is no limit on what a team can spend, wealthy teams like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox can spend hundreds of millions of dollars that smaller market teams couldn’t dream to budget. With this system, teams looked outside of the expensive American high school and college standouts to countries like the Dominican Republic, where potential superstars could be signed for thousands instead of millions. But for these impoverished people, even thousands of American dollars is a dream worth sacrificing everything for.
Ballplayer: Pelotero (“Pelotero” is a slang word for ‘ballplayer’ in the Dominican) uses two young men as a representation for the hundreds of Dominican athletes that are paid to play baseball. The two representatives, Miguel Angel Sano and Juan Carlos Batista, have a lot in common — they are both determined to make something of themselves, driven by their poor family upbringing, and they are also top-of-the-line major league prospects. Outside of these two, we meet their trainers, families, agents and the scouts trying to win their services. Though the filmmakers couldn’t know the fates of its two subjects, they probably couldn’t have picked two better ones. With just these two figures, the film is able to explore every relevant topic surrounding Dominican ‘peloteros.’
Though only 77-minutes, the film is an adequately complete depiction of the signing process for a Dominican prospect. We don’t get a lot of footage of the years of training required to get on this level, but the opening scenes of the film do well enough to represent the great sacrifices that are made by both players and trainers. While the young boys basically have to leave their family from the age of 13 to extensively focus on training, their coaches pay for their food, shelter, equipment and anything else necessary without being paid a dime, with only the hopes of getting the young man a major league contract and taking a portion of his signing bonus as commission. The focus of the film are the months leading up to the eligible signing date, July 2 of each year, with numerous tryouts and tireless negotiations. By doing this, we get enough baseball to understand the central figures’ abilities, but are more impacted by the strain put on them and their families when coming near the time to sign a contract.
One surprising aspect of Ballplayer: Pelotero is that it doesn’t hide or shy away from the criticisms of this signing process. Most baseball fans are fully aware of the many scandals surrounding Dominican players. Because of the pressures of being a can’t-miss prospect by the young age of 16, many talented players will misrepresent their age or use performance enhancing drugs to increase their chances of being signed by a team and receive as much money as possible. Whenever a Dominican prospect is signed by a team, doubts are always expressed by professional journalists and message board cynics alike — even superstars like Albert Pujols were asked to present a birth certificate before signing a huge deal this past offseason. By so strongly depicting the world of these kids, Pelotero effectively shows how these problems arise and actually gave me a bit of sympathy (at least an understanding) for those who do try to skirt the system. Even more, the film dives into the process that all young prospects in the Dominican are now subject to, including a very invasive investigation complete with bone scans and DNA tests to prove their parents. As one talking head claims, it’s like these men are guilty until proven innocent of everything. The process as shown in the documentary is dirty, filled with backhanded dealings, a real eye-opener for fans who hear about these kids for the first time when their favorite team signs them. I realize it’s a totally different situation, but if American high school athletes were subject to the same examination, the ACLU would probably get involved.
As this is a documentary about two young sport hopefuls, I imagine some may compare it with Steve James’s Hoop Dreams. Filmmakers Ross Finkel, Jonathan Paley and Trevor Martin don’t have or use the extensive time and resources to make such an exhaustively complete document. Though it might not overwhelm in any aspect of its filmmaking, Ballplayer: Pelotero is undoubtedly complete in its look at the pressures and the process. An interesting companion piece is Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck’s Sugar, which holds like a fictionalized sequel to the events in this documentary. That would certainly make a pretty great double feature.