Premiering in theaters on the heels of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, Ballplayer: Pelotero is a perfectly timed look at the complicated culture surrounding the "MLB farm system" that has steadily developed in the Dominican Republic since the 1960s and burgeoned exponentially in the past decade as bigger and brighter stars have emerged.
The story unfolds in 2009 and focuses primarily on two highly touted prospects -- 16-year-old Jean Carlos Batista and 15-year-old Miguel Angel Sanó - "peloteros" (ballplayers) living in the Dominican Republic, but counting the days until July 2, when they are eligible to sign with a MLB team. Both boys live in poverty and feel enormous pressure to garner the biggest possible signing bonus in order to rescue their families from the fate that awaits so many Dominicans who don't have the same opportunities.
Narrated by John Leguizamo, the documentary skillfully weaves parallel but intertwining storylines: the human drama surrounding the two players and their quest to sign for top dollar and the problematic system they must navigate -- one that is ripe for corruption and exploitation. Since the signing of the first Dominicans in the early '60s, the number of players has skyrocketed to its current level, with nearly 20% of all players in the minors and majors coming from that country. With signing bonuses increasing along with the star power, the competition has become fiercer than ever. Using the months as interstitials, the story counts down from March -- when training starts in earnest and players begin trying out for various MLB teams (who each have their own Dominican academies) and negotiating contracts, through July -- when the players who have turned 16 can be signed and receive their much-anticipated bonuses.
The intensity of the movie increases dramatically when the standard investigation into player eligibility begins. Since a ballplayer's stock drops drastically after he turns 16, the use of steroids and fake birth certificates has risen over the years, so the scrutiny by Major League Baseball is higher than ever. If a player isn't able to sign on July 2, his bonus is likely to be much lower, but many players get caught in the bureaucracy involved in the investigations and miss the deadline -- and Jean Carlos and Miguel Angel are no exception. The second half of the film follows their diverging, yet ultimately similar stories as they ride a rollercoaster of optimism, fear, frustration, and hopelessness.
The contrast between the two teens is pronounced -- Jean Carlos is more introspective and less confident. His father died when he was ten and he has worked ever since to help support his mother. He lives with his trainer, who is also a father figure, but misses his mother and feels increasing pressure to do well as the tryout season progresses. Miguel Angel, who many agree is the top prospect in the nation, is cockier and brasher. Nicknamed "Bocatón" ("Big Mouth"), he's sure from the beginning that he'll be able to sign in the neighborhood of $5 million. But as the tension surrounding the player investigations increases, the film begins to work like a suspenseful drama -- complete with hidden cameras, accusations of blackmail, and claims of exploitation of the poor -- as we await the outcome.
With superb editing, the filmmakers deftly weave interviews with MLB scouts, the players' personal trainers (who typically don't get paid until their charges sign a contract), agents, and the players and their families, with traditional music and the familiar sights and sounds of the game showing the contrast between the pure joy of baseball and the hardcore, and often problematic, business that it has become in the Dominican Republic. ~ Sarah Block, Rovi