Ballplayer: Pelotero – Movie Review

Although this film is a “must see” for baseball aficionados, its narrow scope takes it out of the big leagues.

The story starts with four Dominican baseball players who are drafted to play for San Francisco in the 1980’s. The group included Juan Marichal, who would go on to become one of the greatest pitchers in the game. The signing fees for the group of four were about equal to the phone bill for one of today’s major league players. The major leagues were onto something that every Western corporation soon learned. Cheap labor makes for high profits. The race for Dominican players was on.

In the first few scenes of the movie, the basic rule of the game is stated: “Baseball players here are like a commodity. They are raised and trained to a certain point, and then they are sold.” Fair enough, the States’ system is not much different. Given that, there are some important differences between the Dominican system and the training of US children who eventually become champion athletes. To the films credit, some of these are explored. Unfortunately, most of the important issues are left untouched.

In the DR, children are sent to baseball camps from about the ages of six to sixteen. At sixteen, they are eligible for the draft for the American minor leagues, the stepping-stone to the Big Show, the majors. The future champs will serve and train in the minor leagues for five to ten years before stepping up. Many will not make it.

The key issue in this film is that the ideal signing age is sixteen. The first day of recruitment is defined as July second of each year. The mission of the young pelotero is to sign with an American team on July 2 of the year he turns sixteen. Signing after that means less money, less prestige and a lower level of access to the powers that be.

The fascinating part of this film is the exploration into the soft underbelly of this system. It is to the benefit of young players to lie about their age since an eighteen year old has a big developmental advantage over a sixteen year old. Slipshod Dominican birth records can be forged years in advance to prepare a foundation for that July second signing date in the year the eighteen year old appears to be turning sixteen.

The most advanced DNA testing is employed to confirm the identity mother and father and hospital and school records are examined with the scrutiny of an FBI agent on a tax evasion case. Bone scans are employed to provide further evidence of the age of the player, regardless of what other evidence shows. Two years older means two years less peak performance. Professional athletes age fast these days.

The other part of the film is the apparent collusion that major league teams can employ to cut the signing bonuses of Dominican players. The corporations have complete control of the testing process and can drag it out as long as they like. They are, after all, a monopoly. The young player who has devoted his life to the game has no place else to go. If the age and identity-testing barrage do not yield the proper degree of intimidation, there is always the visa angle. If the player cannot travel to the US, he is worth less.

Thus, the film is an expose’. Unfortunately, the elephant in the room, the trade-off between baseball military boot camp and reading and writing, is left unaddressed. The obscenely high signing bonuses dangled in front of the children dwarf what they can hope to make in conventional professions.

The baseball machine uses this to its advantage, to ensure a high supply and high negotiating leverage while dooming the vast majority of the wannabees to lives of illiteracy and poverty, after they fail to make the grade.

To be sure, this happens every day in the States, as inner city athletes are run through a faux college curriculum that is aimed at maximum television sports revenues and is only secondarily concerned about the long-term professional success of its athletes. One injury in the pros and yesterday’s front-page news is today’s welfare case.

Reportedly, the system has changed, to some degree, since this film was made. A new collective bargaining agreement between players and the athletic corporations has limited signing bonuses for foreign players. This should help weight the scales in favor of a more normal childhood and more education as opposed to growing up sleeping with a bat and glove.

The corporations of the developed nations have made trillions of dollars extracting resources from under developed countries. When this resource extraction is under way, it is in the best interests of the corporations to keep the workers in the under developed countries poor and uneducated.

This is the message that is lost in this film. It should not be about the ten or twenty kids that make it. The real story lies in the thousands that do not.

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Directed by: Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, and Jonathan Paley
Featuring: Jean Carlos Batista, John Leguizamo and Miguel Angel Sano
Release Date: July 13, 2012
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 72 Minutes
Country: USA / Dominican Republic
Language: Spanish / English
Color: Color