(This review was originally published on July 13, 2012 at Reel Film News)
Pawns in the politics of Major League Baseball and their scouting protocol in the Dominican Republic – an island making up almost 20% of the professional talent that populate the fields of America’s favorite sporting pastime – are two sixteen-year-old prospects hoping for the payday promised by a phone call that comes on the sacred 2nd day of July, the first (and highest paying) day they are eligible to sign a contract with a major league team.
There are three things these two kids have in common: they are both extremely talented, both are trying to provide a better life for their parents and siblings – who, despite incredible optimism, live in unfathomable poverty – and neither of them behave like they are kids. The second similarity is where “Pelotero” (meaning ‘ballplayer’ in Spanish), draws its depth, but the third is where it draws its controversy; it’s a subject that co-directors Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jonathan Paley cover with the stealthy honesty of a good old-fashioned exposé.
A bare-bones but quite enthralling (and often damning) two-prong documentary following the MLB’s approach to harnessing top-tier talent on the island, the slippery measures that seem to go with some of its scouts and the dynamics of the Dominican families involved, “Ballplayer: Pelotero” works as an interesting, often infuriating observation whether you’re a baseball fan or not. And it even provides a few twists along the way.
Narrated by John Leguizamo, the film manages to instill both frustration and positivity with its un-minced message that is analogous perhaps to any corrupt government; an entity that itself seems to have no real governing body. In this case, it’s Major League Baseball. It’s unclear whether the system is tainted or just not well regulated enough – I suppose that’s the point here, but where the corruption lies is a different story. And the two aforementioned examples – Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano – emerging talent that could potentially command massive signing bonuses on July 2nd are caught in a trap; investigation of age fraud by the MLB. By the rulebook, this is standard and necessary practice; however “Pelotero” observes the questionable use of this regulation as a stalling tactic in order to drive a player’s value down to make him more affordable. Conversely, there was a rash of prospects known to lie about their age – not a big secret – saying they are younger than they are in order to increase their value to interested teams. These separate stories run parallel through the stressful training and scouting period prior to the big day and turn out in very different – and unexpected ways.
There is a major humanizing element to this film, and much more to it than I expected. At 77 minutes with no padding, and some of the – forgive me – ballsiest commentary I’ve seen in some time, “Ballplayer: Pelotero” should make you think about the dramatic variance of what people go through (and get paid) to get to the same place on the baseball field. It certainly doesn’t intend to diminish the capabilities of any other nationality at the sport – though some of the humorous, albeit cocky quotes from Sano and crew might make you think otherwise. But outside of the film’s obvious subject lies a whole realm of relevant and very important discussions to be had.