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Movie review: 'Ballplayer: Pelotero' takes damning look at system

When the dreams of baseball prospects from the Dominican Republic meet the cartel that is Major League Baseball, shamefulness results, as this fine documentary details.

July 12, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • "Ballplayer: Pelotero" details the pro dreams, obstacles of Dominicans.
"Ballplayer: Pelotero" details the pro dreams, obstacles… (Strand Releasing )

"Ballplayer: Pelotero" is not your usual sports film, no sentimental excursion into "the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat." Not even close.

And though it examines the lives of two teenage boys from the Dominican Republic who are hoping to collect significant signing bonuses and play professional baseball, thinking of this as only an up-close and personal documentary is limiting as well.

Rather, as directed by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jon Paley, "Ballplayer" is a damning film with a political edge. It's an eye-opening look at a flawed, potentially exploitative system and how it is being gamed from all sides of the table — the story of the collision of youthful dreams and a cutthroat adult cartel.

The cartel is Major League Baseball, an entity whose interest in the Dominican Republic is so great that the country is the only place outside of Manhattan where the sport maintains an office. The reason for this is not surprising: About 20% of current major leaguers were born in that island nation.

Because Dominican talent is so critical to baseball, a system has been put in place where each year on July 1, teams can sign players who have turned 16 and start them on the road to the majors. Though the initial Dominican players, legends like Juan Marichal and the Alou brothers, signed for negligible bonuses, today's recruits can command monetary payments that can go as high as several million dollars for the best prospects.

The existence of all this money has led to several areas of potential abuse. Just for openers, small-scale baseball training camps feed, house and coach these kids for free for years in return for a hefty percentage of their signing bonus should there be one. "It's like working the land," one observer says. "When a crop grows you sell it. That's just the way it is."

With all this as backdrop, "Ballplayer" brings us into the lives of two young players several months before July 1, 2009's signing date. At first Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano seem like earnest kids who have the traditionally heart-warming sports dreams of making enough money to buy a nice house for their mothers.

But gradually, over the eight months the film's trio of directors filmed on the island, complexities of personality emerge as well as unexpected turns of events that lead to bad feelings and even betrayals.

Batista's story seems the most touching at first. A sad-eyed young man, he seems not to have recovered from his father's death when the boy was 10. As a result, his coach, Astin Jacobo Jr., feels like more of a surrogate dad than is usual in these situations, a bond that comes to be tested more than once.

If Batista is solemn, Sano is quite the opposite, an ebullient young man whose nickname is "Bocaton," or big mouth. Sano is also the best Dominican prospect in quite some time, with so much fluidity and power that scouts are open-mouthed in appreciation.

"He's a natural, it's easy for him to play baseball," says one, while Rene Gayo of the Pittsburgh Pirates announces, "No one loves you more than I do. I adore you." No wonder record-setting bonuses are expected for Sano when July 1 rolls around.

But before that magic day arrives, concerns surface about Sano's age. Is he older than he claims, is he even who he claims to be? Poleaxed by this turn of events, the young man and his family dutifully go through all the hoops insisted on by MLB, including a bone scan and a DNA check, but nothing seems to satisfy the powers that be. And that puts Sano's potential record-breaking bonus in jeopardy.

You'll have to watch "Ballplayer" to see how it all turns out for both young men, but the extent to which the system is vulnerable to manipulation, whether by the majors, the league or the players themselves, is all too obvious. It may be true, as one scout says, that "At the end of the day, he's merchandise," but that doesn't make how the system works any less shameful.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Ballplayer: Pelotero'

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hill

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