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The Big Picture: 'Pelotero' reveals messy business of Dominican ball

The Dominican Republic is known for its baseball talent, but 'Ballplayer: Pelotero' uncovers a troubled scouting system in which MLB is more hindrance than help.

July 09, 2012|By Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times
  • "Ballplayer: Pelotero" is an unsettling portrait of a system rife with corruption and betrayal.
"Ballplayer: Pelotero" is an unsettling portrait of a system… (Strand Releasing )

One of the most engaging stars in baseball today is the Boston Red Sox's David Ortiz, a Big Gulp-sized Dominican Republic-born slugger who'll show off his talents in Tuesday's All-Star game in Kansas City. In 1992, when he was 16, Ortiz was given a $10,000 bonus to sign his first Major League Baseball contract with the Seattle Mariners.

That same year, a now-forgotten American college player named Jeffrey Hammonds was paid a $975,000 bonus to sign with the Baltimore Orioles. In that same draft of U.S. high school and college players, an unheralded high schooler named Derek Jeter signed with the New York Yankees for $800,000.

Even though the Dominican Republic has just 10 million people, only slightly more than L.A. County, the country is a fertile incubator of baseball talent: Nearly 20% of baseball players in the minors and major leagues hail from the Caribbean nation. I don't mean to bore you with all those numbers, but they are at the heart of a fascinating new documentary called "Ballplayer: Pelotero," which opens Friday in theaters and on video-on-demand. It eyeballs the vertiginous ups and downs of two top teenage Dominican prospects as they prepare for the red-letter day of July 2, the first day that Major League teams can sign foreign-born players in the international draft.

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Directed by Ross Finkel, Trevor Marin and Jonathan Paley, "Pelotero" (Spanish for baseball player) began as an effort to explain how countless Dominican players who start out playing in the streets with sticks and rolled-up socks end up as Horatio Alger-style success stories. But after spending a year in the Dominican Republic, the filmmakers found a darker, far more disturbing story than they had expected.

"We were pretty naive at first," conceded Finkel, 25, who flew to the Dominican Republic on the filmmaking team's first scouting trip in 2008, just weeks after he'd graduated from the University of Colorado. "We wanted to capture the journey these players go through, but as you can see, things didn't turn out to be so peachy keen."

An unsettling portrait of a system rife with corruption and betrayal, "Pelotero" has a lot more in common with "Chinatown"than "Angels in the Outfield." It is more investigative journalism than ESPN-style mythmaking. Like Jonathan Hock's "The Best that Never Was" and Steve James'"Hoop Dreams" before it, the film offers a sobering respite from all the celebrity worship about our sports heroes that we get day in and day out on our TV screens.

For years, the Dominican has been the Wild West of baseball, where impoverished kids would shave years off their ages or even switch identities with younger players so they could pass themselves off as prodigies.

When the "Pelotero" filmmakers arrived in the country ahead of the 2009 signing season, signing bonuses were spiraling skyward, with one 16-year-old receiving a $4.25-million bonus in 2008. Early in the film, a baseball scout predicts on camera that MLB won't stand by and let bonuses go any higher. He was right. Under the latest collective bargaining agreement, concluded last year, each MLB team's entire expenditure in Latin America is limited to $2.9 million per year.

The filmmakers spent most of their time with Miguel Angel Sano, a top shortstop prospect avidly being courted by a number of teams. In the months before the July 2, 2009, signing deadline, a mysterious whispering campaign unfolded, alleging that Sano was older than he said he was. The rumors swirled: his mother had once had a miscarriage; maybe he wasn't even her child. MLB launched an investigation, forcing Sano to undergo a battery of DNA tests and bone scans to prove his age and identity. The deadline came and went, but the investigation continued.

One day, when the filmmakers met with the MLB investigator, Rene Gayo (then a top scout with the Pittsburgh Pirates), Gayo told the Sano family that Miguel couldn't be cleared without his help. Gayo waved the camera crew away, but later Sano informed the filmmakers that Gayo told him that if he admitted to being 19 and signed with the Pirates, the investigation would go away.

When Sano's family appealed for help from local baseball authorities, the commissioner of Dominican baseball pointed the finger at Major League Baseball, insinuating that MLB was eager to find ways to undercut Sano's value as a bonus baby. "There is only one MLB," he told Sano's family. "It's a monopoly … I'm totally clear. This is happening because [your son] is poor."

At their wits' end, the family invited Gayo to their home, where they secretly videotaped their meeting using a camera borrowed from the filmmakers. Gayo wandered out of camera range and the video cuts out, but on the audio track we hear Gayo telling them: "You don't have any problems because you've got me."

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