Sports as a tool for upward social mobility is of course nothing new — in generations past, boxing was a big way out of miserable poverty, and followed in short order by baseball, football and basketball. As the world has grown smaller, however, enterprising clubs in various sports, seeking to better compete, have turned their attention abroad, with an eye on harvesting fresh young talent at less than premium prices. Nowhere is this truer than in baseball, as illustrated by the engaging new documentary Pelotero: Ballplayer.
While it compares to just two percent of the total population of the United States, the tiny island country of the Dominican Republic currently fills a whopping 20 percent of combined major and minor league rosters, and has produced a steady stream of impact players and big stars, from Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz to Neftali Feliz and Hanley Ramirez. The craze has its roots in the huge success of the 1962 San Francisco Giants, which included Juan Marichal, Felipe and Matty Alou, and Manny Mota — major talents, all. The reasons for the significant uptick in Latin American investment over the past 15 to 20 years in particular are myriad, but in the broadest strokes relate to a relative downturn in American-born talent (see also: the surge in popularity of football, combined with the fact that baseball still takes more kids to play than hoops), or at least the cost to develop that talent over the course of several years, in a far more expansive and rigorous feeder system than other major sports leagues employ.
Narrated by John Leguizamo, Pelotero (which translates as ballplayer) focuses on two top prospects and their trainers as they prepare for July 2, the national signing day during which players can ink formal contracts with teams on their 16th birthdays. Miguel Angel Sano is a rangy shortstop with a smooth swing and plenty of power. Jean Carlos Batista is an infielder with quick hands and a quicker bat. Their respective trainers have each invested plenty of time in them (and other prospects), so they look to the 35 percent commissions on what they hope will be seven-figure signing bonuses as a means to fund their pro bono work, and keep their academies open. Before things are over, though, both Sano and Batista will have the validity of their ages called into question — not uncommon in the Dominican Republic. Hospital records, DNA tests and even bone scans (!) will ensue, spotlighting both the work and extraordinary pursuits and measures of an inter-American dream.
Pelotero: Ballplayer would make a great double feature with last year's Elevate, which examined a Senegalese basketball academy which served as a feeder to the United States. Both movies examine, in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable fashion, the strange combination of moral benevolence (having lost his dad several years earlier, Jean Carlos talks candidly about his need and search for a father figure) and almost parasitic business interest that informs non-familial adults helping shepherd these kids.
In the sport of basketball — and particularly coming from Africa, where pro leagues are few — while the ultimate goal is to get paid to play professional basketball in the NBA, the Senegalese academies work their charges with an eye on prep school scholarships in the United States, and then college grants. There's some focus on education, as well as a sense of collective social responsibility being instilled. In the Dominican Republic, these kids are signing binding financial contracts at younger ages. It's hard not to have some moral ambivalence about that, and Pelotero indulges a bit more curiosity on this front than Elevate.
With as of yet no international draft, Major League Baseball has a clear and understandable motive to keep down foreign player development costs relative to Stateside signing bonuses, which routinely run into seven-figure territory for the most valued prospects. And in lifting up a few rocks in the stories of its two chief subjects, Pelotero seems to shine a light on that (other) dirty "c word" — collusion. Would teams mutually agree upon not paying the same rates to a foreign player that they might to an American-born prospect? Or even smear, malign and spread rumors in order to drive down competition and market price on a player? Well, it's a sport, and a sunny summer pastime for many, but baseball is also a business. And Pelotero is the athletic equivalent of an unannounced Nike or Apple factory tour. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Strand Releasing/Endeavor Films, unrated, 77 minutes)