Tonight, I went out to a theater and saw Sugar, a movie about a fictional Dominican baseball player and his path from the baseball academy in his native country to the minor leagues in the Midwest. One of the cliches that’s repeated numerous times during the film is, “It’s just a game”. Of course, as we all saw just two days ago, with the passing of the great Harry Kalas, it is not “just a game”. For many people, it is much, much more than that, and this film does a great job of showing how that’s true for Latino players trying to make it to the big leagues.
Sugaris the second film from the writing/directing duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (their first film, Half Nelson, has nothing to do with sports, but is also very good). While the movie is undoubtedly baseball-centric, it really isn’t a “sports movie”. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young man that happens to play baseball. It gives an inside look into what Latino ballplayers go through as they leave their families behind and are shipped off to a strange place, and how the “system” of Major League Baseball may or may not be treating them fairly.
The main character, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, is played by Algenis Perez Soto, who is not an actor. The filmmakers interviewed hundreds of Dominicans before settling on him, and he gives an outstanding performance. One of the things that stood out to me is how different the experience of minor league baseball is for poor players from poor countries. Most of them have no skills other than playing baseball. They have the hopes of their entire family on their shoulders and there are basically only two outcomes: make the majors and become wildly rich and famous, or be released and be left with virtually no options after spending most of their young lives in blind pursuit of baseball success. The difference is obvious during one scene when Sugar is talking to a teammate who was a first-round pick out of Stanford. Sugar asks him what he would do if baseball didn’t work out, and the teammate says that maybe he’d go to graduate school. Granted, there are many American minor-leaguers that don’t have a degree from Stanford, but they generally have a lot more options than your average Dominican, and it doesn’t hurt that they can speak English. The stakes are a lot higher for these guys, and you certainly feel for Sugar when he’s getting booed during a rough outing for his minor-league team.
All in all, it’s an interesting look into baseball’s pipeline to Latin America, and it also delves into more general issues of immigration and integration into America. Check it out if you get a chance.