Review: New ‘Pelotero’ Movie Documents MLB Eating Its Young

Bison Messink reviews Pelotero for

“The options in the [Dominican Republic] are jail, the army, the factory, or baseball,” a Domincan ballplayer once told sportwriter Dave Zirin. Zirin delivers the quote in his essay “Béisbol: How The Major Leagues Eat Their Young,” and if you think the essay title is hyperbolic, you should see the new baseball documentary Pelotero. That language isn’t nearly as figurative as it sounds.

In the Dominican Republic, ballplayers – peloteros – are raised like cash crops.

Pelotero is set to be released in theaters, itunes and on demand on July 13th. It’s an important – and captivating – movie for baseball fans; it also delivers more tension and a stronger narrative arc than most documentaries, which makes it more than palatable for those who aren’t baseball lovers. Baseball fans will recognize Bobby Valentine’s name in the credits as an executive producer, and the non-fans will recognize John Leguizamo’s voice doing the narration.

The star of the show is Miguel Ángel Sanó, who in a matter of years will be a household name as a star infielder for the Minnesota Twins. Sanó today is a 19-year-old power-hitter in the single-A Midwest League. During the filming of Pelotero he’s a 16-year-old prospect awaiting July 2 – signing day – and fighting tooth and nail to prove that he’s not older than he says he is.

With startling frankness, Dominican trainer, American agents and Major League scouts in Pelotero discuss young Dominican boys using words like “harvest,” “commodity” and “industry.” It’s a dirty trade. Imagine all the ugliness of big-time college football and basketball recruiting – exept instead of scholarships, the prize is multi-million dollar bonuses. And instead of having the NCAA ostensibly trying to root out corruption, we’ve got Major League Baseball operating with impunity to foster corruption in its own financial interest.

In Hoop Dreams fashion, the documentary tracks both Sanó, one of the top 16-year-old prospects the Domican Republic has ever seen, and another elite (albeit less spectacular) shortstop prospect, Jean Carlos Batista, who now plays in the Astros organization.

Sanó has everything going for him: a sturdy 6-3 frame, an easy, powerful swing, a cannon for an arm, soft hands, solid footwork, good foot speed and a million-dollar smile to go along. Sanó – and his family, his trainer Vasilio “Moreno” Tejeda, his agent Rob Plummer – all dream of a record breaking bonus of $6 or $7 or $8 million dollars. What they get instead is a cynical MLB investigation into the veracity of his age.

The investigation – which the Sanó family believes is orchestrated Pirates scout Rene Gayo to drive Sanó’s value down so the Pirates can afford to sign him – stretches far beyond the July 2 signing day, which costing Sanó leverage in negogiation, and casting doubt over doubt over his age. They test his piss, his blood, his shit, his bone structure, his DNA. His family shows a birth certificate, hospital records, school records, photos – and even after results show no red flags, the investigation continues unresolved.

“This is happening because he’s poor,” a legal advisor tells the Sanó when they get desperate during the endless investigation. One of Sanó’s relatives calls MLB a “mafia.” His agent uses the word “collusion.”

The details of Sanó’s saga with Gayo and the Pirates is a classic he-said, she-said, but it’s hard to watch Pelotero and believe that Gayo is anything but the villain the film casts him as. Gayo, according to the film, released an unapologetic saying everyone involved was “guilty of what their job requires.”

Clearly, MLB’s prime interest in the Dominican Republic is protecting the economic stranglehold the league has on the sport.

Miguel Sanó wound up signing for $3.15, so it’s hard to feel too bad for him and his handlers. But here’s the far sadder reality: there are an estimated 100,000 Dominican boys forgoing other educational or economic pursuits to train full time, many in MLB academies, with the longshot dream of getting paid like Sanó.

What happens to those kids when they bottom out? When you think about how little care Major League Baseball showed for Miguel Sanó while harvesting and then devouring him, it becomes a little sickening to think of how baseball chews up and spits out the kids who aren’t destined for greatness.

In his essay, Zirin poses two ethical questions to Major League Baseball. After watching Pelotero, it’s obvious what baseball’s answers are.

Does baseball have a broader responsibility to the Dominican Republic and those ten- and eleven-year-old kids who think they have a better chance of emerging from desperately poor conditions with a stick and a milk-carton glove than by staying in school? Does a highly-profitable organizaton like Major League Baseball have an obligation to cushion the crash landing that awaits 99.9 percent of D.R. kids with big league dreams, or the 95 percent of players who are good enough to be chosen for the academy but are summarily discarded with nothing but a kick out the door?

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One thought on “Review: New ‘Pelotero’ Movie Documents MLB Eating Its Young

  1. Interesting, I will be checking this out. “Sugar” and “The Road to the big leagues” were also informative on this subject.

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