Baseball has been very good to the American cinema. Or perhaps visa versa (if we can only forgive — and forget — William Bendix as Babe Ruth).
The game has worked well as comedy (“Bull Durham,” “Major League”) musical comedy (“Damn Yankees”), drama (“Eight Men Out,” Bang the Drum Slowly”) and myth (“The Natural,” “Field of Dreams”).
But all of those films were mired in what are now outdated notions of the game as the American pastime, as a central piece of our cultural fabric. Film hasn’t yet caught up with the new American game of baseball — internationalized and, above all, Hispanicized.
A fine start, though, is the new movie “Sugar” — a bittersweet look at the familiar baseball dream through Dominican eyes. The Dominican Republic has, in recent years, been Major League baseball’s mother lode. And to the young Dominicans, of course, America is the mother lode. Boys on the island dream of getting out and — just like Pedro Martinez or Albert Pujols or “Big Papi” David Ortiz — making it to the bigs and to its cathedral, Yankee Stadium. Or if not all the way, at least far enough along baseball’s highway to afford a new home for mom.
Making it to the majors is decidedly an against-the-odds proposition and “Sugar” does a superb job of casting the dream — and ultimately dashing it — against hard reality. “Sugar” is the nickname of the fictional Miguel Santos, a talented 20-year-old pitcher, though still a marginal prospect for the “Kansas City Knights.” He is good enough, with the addition of a spike curve he learned in K.C.’s baseball mill on the island, to earn his coveted ticket to the United States — an invite to minor-league spring training camp in Arizona. (Algenis Perez Soto, the acting rookie who delivers a pitch-perfect portrayal of “Sugar,” played baseball on the island, but never earned that shot.)
But from the moment “Sugar” lands in Phoenix, he is a stranger in a strange land. He eats French toast every night because he can’t read the menu and that’s what somebody ordered for him the very first evening. The sense of estrangement is even more pronounced when “Sugar” is assigned to the Knights’ single A team in Iowa. He misses his mother, his girlfriend, his food, his music, the island’s rhythms and culture — and can’t relate to the farm family with whom he lives, not even to the attractive and slightly flirtatious teenaged daughter. “Sugar” is lost in translation and when an older Dominican player is cut from the team, he is simply lost.
Lately there has been a lot of scandal attached to various Major League Baseball teams’ Dominican programs. There have been stories of corrupt agents taking kickbacks and falsifying birth certificates to make a prospect suitably young, as well as of the availability of an array of performance-enhancing drugs to help jump-start the dream. But “Sugar,” directed by the writing/directing team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“Half Nelson”), doesn’t resort to caricature and isn’t much interested in villainy (though “Sugar,” in desperation, does try to right himself with amphetamines).
In this tale, the agent does takes 40 percent, but he has mentored the youngster for years and is something of a surrogate father. The Iowa manager keeps talking to “Sugar” in English, even though he knows the kid doesn’t understand a word, but he is not insensitive, just desperately trying to squeeze an emotional bond through the language barrier. The ballyhooed, first-round draft choice that plays alongside him is not arrogant and indifferent, just on a different course. The Iowa family opens its home and its heart to “Sugar,” even if it doesn’t have a clue what he is experiencing — at least no more than he can recognize what they are offering.
Sugar’s tale is not every Dominican prospect’s tale. But the outcome, at least when it comes to his baseball fate, is certainly less the exception than the fables of superstardom we read in our sports pages. We recognize the extraordinary talent of the Dominicans and other foreign players who reach the majors. But we may not fully appreciate the fortitude required to get there. Or recognize all those who get left behind and, ultimately, are happy just for the chance to play in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.
Click here for GlobalPost's coverage of the Dominican Republic's baseball academies.
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