The District has always been rife with scandal, but until February 2009, our baseball team was relatively unscathed. News broke that Esmailyn González, an exciting new shortstop from the Dominican Republic, was signed by the Washington Nationals under false pretenses. González was an identity invented by Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo, and he lied about his age, too. The Nationals thought González was sixteen when they signed him, but he was actually three years older. This scandal casts a dark shadow over Ballplayer: Pelotero, the new documentary about two young Dominican shortstops. Although it starts as a traditional rags-to-riches story, the filmmakers go deeper to uncover institutional corruption within MLB.
At an early age, these athletes feel extraordinary pressure. Baseball is their ticket out of poverty – they all dream of buying a nice home for their family – and age sixteen is the only time they can get a multi-million dollar signing bonus. After that, their value drops precipitously. One of the players is Jean Carlos Batista, and he seems like a nice kid with oodles of potential. His devoted coach clearly loves him. The other player is Miguel Angel Sano, and whereas Batista has potential, Sano already has the skill. He’s fielding the ball and hitting dingers like a professional. The MLB is suspicious of Sano, so as the Pirates begin courting him, he must also undergo a battery of tests to verify his age and identity. The inquiry takes longer than it should, and Sano’s camp begins to suspect foul play as the signing deadline gets closer.
Directors Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, and Jonathan Paley structure the documentary to maximize audience reaction. Before the inquiries begin, an MLB contract is merely a matter of skill and luck. Batista and Sano work harder than any teenager should, and their sincerity is what makes them so compelling. The narration from John Leguizamo slowly uncovers details and history about the world of baseball in the Dominican Republic, but is careful to leave out specific hints of impropriety until we care about the boys. The reveal of systemic corruption has a devastating effect; under the guise of a proper investigation, the MLB quashes the players’ chances for a top bonus. Although the directors never say it directly, they imply the organization colludes with scouts so they can undervalue the players’ worth. It is downright thrilling when Sano’s mother, a proud woman with a sharp mind, decides to take matters into her own hands.
There is no way the filmmakers could have predicted Ballplayer: Pelotero would end the way it did, and in one sense, they’re lucky. The stories of Sano and Batista have a silver lining, though they’re complicated by real life and an incomplete sense of justice. Title cards offer some hope of reform for baseball’s recruitment system in Latin America. Still, the message offers little solace to the current crop of players. Recruiters treat prospects like an investment, not a person, so all the subsequent manipulation resembles the corruption on Wall Street. The directors argue that’s just the way it works when baseball is a business, and a players’ value matters more than his talent. Ballplayer: Pelotero is the logical conclusion of the theory behind Moneyball, except the system is inherently unfair when a poor kid from a poor country makes the mistake of trusting the men who might fulfill their dreams.