Ballplayer: Pelotero, a new documentary about Major League Baseball recruiting in the Dominican Republic, focuses on two teenage prospects, using their stories to illuminate the larger picture and its thorny consequences. Its real subject is not so much baseball as international commerce, and what happens when a poor country has resources a rich country wants.
Since the early 1960s, the Dominican Republic has provided such a fertile supply of professional ballplayers (currently a disproportionate 10 percent) that a complex, semi-official network has developed for exporting them to teams in the United States. Grueling training camps hone promising players’ skills in the hopes that when they become eligible to sign (on July 2 after their sixteenth birthday), they will draw large bonuses (as much as $5 million). One trainer likens the system to harvesting and selling crops. The trainers work on commission, up to 35 percent — and if that sounds like a lot, they’re quick to point out that they spend years training players for free because the kids’ families can’t afford to pay them. Trainers also act as agents, except for the top prospects, who have professional agents. The players, their families, and the trainers all invest a lot of time and energy — both physical and emotional — in hopes of a big windfall. Meanwhile, Major League recruiters try to limit skyrocketing bonuses and get the best talent for the least amount of money. “At the end of the day,” one participant says, in telling reference to a player, “he’s merchandise.”
Over the course of several months in 2009, Pelotero follows two cocky, driven shortstops, Miguel Angel Sanó and Juan Carlos Batista, who are rated among the top prospects in the country. A third major character emerges in the form of Astín Jacobo, a renowned trainer who has developed a paternal relationship with the fatherless Batista. As July 2 approaches, the players enter a negotiation process with recruiters and agents that, in its way, places even more intense pressure on them than their training does. Because of rampant age and identity fraud, in which older players pass themselves off as sixteen to take advantage of the larger signing bonuses offered to players with more years to give the team, they must also prove that they are who they say they are and were born when they say they were. Sanó undergoes a particularly extensive investigation, including bone scans and DNA tests, which threatens to limit his opportunities.
Making its debut feature, the directorial team of Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, and John Paley has crafted a taut, good-looking documentary that delves into a system in which economic disparity has led to endemic corruption. The timeline for signing players provides an unforced narrative arc, Sanó’s investigation heightens the tension, and a late, unexpected twist adds to the drama. With its resonant themes of power, money, and family, Pelotero is likely to appeal to viewers with little interest in baseball, or even in sports in general. Still, the film could have used more details about the game, to contextualize the business aspects. We’re told repeatedly that these kids are the best, but it would have been nice to see a little more evidence demonstrating why.
Major League Baseball declined to cooperate in the production of Pelotero, but one of the film’s executive producers is Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, whose production company Makurhari Media is planning “a slate of character-driven sports documentaries,” of which Pelotero is the first. It sets a high bar.