Movie Review: “Pelotero” (Ross Finkel/Trevor Martin/Jonathan Paley, USA/Dominican Republic 2011)

Major League Baseball has for many years received a considerable amount of talent from the Dominican Republic. The system whereby they are signed is at best very far short of perfect and at worst outright exploitative, not to mention quite unfair competitively. This film exposes some of the ugliest elements of the system. It should be noted that the system has changed a bit since when the film is set, but not enough that the problems it sees are assuaged.

Pelotero follows two Dominican prospects, Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano, as they go through the process of signing with MLB teams when first eligible. MLB’s rules only allow players to sign after turning 16 and fix the first eligibility date as June 2, making every player eligible and the first June 2 after his 16th birthday. Because teams place a high premium on youth and have limited international budgets, the top prospects are 16-year-olds who sign immediately on June 2. The competition among teams has led to high costs in signing the players (pricing the lower-budget teams out of signing the top prospects) and a very strong incentive for players to lie about their ages or even complete identities, the latter of which has led to countless scandals over the years.

This film examines the issues through following its two prospects. Sano is considered one of the top prospects in recent memory, and we get a good look at the 15 year old who turns 16 just in time for signing, a poor kid who is surrounded by his family, an agent, and a trainer. He’s rather immature (big shock), but is also an incredible athlete whose trainer and agent seem to be taking good care of him. Then, a scout from the Pirates suddenly says, “He doesn’t seem like a kid. The maturity. The way he talks to you. So, that’s a concern.” As a result, MLB begins investigating his age, performing DNA tests, bone tests, and records searches that all agree with his family’s story that he is 16, but, after months of investigation that cost Sano his chance to sign on June 2, MLB still considers his age “inconclusive.”

Most teams refuse to sign Sano because of the age questions, but the question about his age really seems to exist only because one scout from a small market team desperate to sign the top prospect implausibly claimed that the kid seemed too mature for 16, against all evidence the film has shown so far. It’s a fascinating and rather depressing picture of how corrupt the baseball system can be with Dominican players and how difficult it can be for them to make it through the system in tact even when they haven’t done anything wrong. We see his family try every method it can of proving his age and do everything MLB asks of them, only to have MLB announce that its results are inconclusive and one scout insist that he’s the kid’s only hope. It’s ugly, but it’s the type of mess that we rarely get a chance to see from the player’s perspective, and this film gives us a shot at it.

Meanwhile, Batista is an almost disturbingly serious kid who works hard and is a good prospect but nowhere near Sano’s level, and yet apparently through most of the process no one questioned his age. Then, when the best offer he got was for $450 000 instead of the $1.5 million he was expecting, he turned it down and waited for a new offer. MLB then decided to investigate him as well and came back with the same “inconclusive” result. However, his trainer decided to investigate on his own and quickly (so quickly that it really makes MLB’s investigation questionable at best) finds that he was the same age in two elementary school grades and then his mother admits to lying about his age.

The film does an excellent job of presenting these two players, the desperate situation they are in, and the trials and tribulations of the signing process. It also absolutely destroys any pretense of impartiality or competence by MLB’s investigations unit, which took far too long to investigate both kids and came out with nonsensical “inconclusive” results in both cases. I also don’t see any sign anywhere that the film cheated journalistically, though MLB has refused to say anything in response to it.

Visually, the film thankfully avoids the traditional sports documentary pitfalls. It presents its story very plainly and simply, without graphics and other visual tricks and with only a small amount of narration. It’s not visually stunning, but it’s a good, smart look that allows the story to shine and lets it stand apart from most sports documentaries. My biggest issue was with the insistence on showing subtitles for everyone with a Spanish-language accent, regardless of how clearly they spoke–it was a bit distracting and annoying.

All told, this is an interesting film that works either as an absolute takedown of MLB’s system in the Dominican Republic or as a human interest story about two desperate families who need their children to help them to escape poverty through baseball but run into road blocks along the way.

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