Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ballplayer: Pelotero

Something uncanny happens halfway through the baseball documentary “Pelotero.” The filmmakers, who promised (and failed to deliver) the personal stories of two teenage Dominican Republic boys who hope to make it to MLB, trip over one of the biggest scoops in 21st-century sports reporting. Even then, they don’t seem to know what they’ve got.

“Pelotero” focuses on the sweet, big-eyed shortstop Jean Carlos Batista, who hopes to command a signing bonus of $1.5 million, and a five-tool threat, SS/3B Miguel Angel Sano, whose bonus on Signing Day (July 2) may threaten the all-time record for an international player. Batista opens up somewhat, most compellingly about the substitute father-figure role played by his trainer, but Sano – nicknamed, ironically, Bigmouth – remains a cipher, clamming up anytime the interviews get serious.

Teams look to sign Dominican 16-year-olds and bring them up within their farm systems. The signing bonuses drop significantly with each year of age. MLB, for reasons not immediately apparent, begins an investigation into Sano’s age, requiring a complete physical, bone scan exams, certificates from every hospital and school he’s ever attended, and much more. But despite DNA tests that establish his age and the identity of his mother, the inquiry remains open to and through Signing Day, lowering Sano’s potential signing bonus and ultimately jeopardizing his ability to sign with a team at all.

This is where the filmmakers, almost by accident, luck into a huge sports-journalism story. Circumstantial evidence clearly indicates that the Pittsburgh Pirates’ director of Latin American scouting, Rene Gayo, colluded with a contact inside MLB’s Dominican office to commence the Sano investigation and keep it going for so long that Sano would be forced to sign for less money with the Pirates. (“This would all go away,” an MLB investigator tells Sano and his family, “if you’ll just sign with Pittsburgh.”) The best-case gloss is that MLB’s investigation squad is too understaffed and underfunded to handle the backlog of cases; the worst-case scenario (i.e., the truth) is something far more sinister.

The filmmakers should be screaming from the mountaintop, but don’t seem to get how big this story is. They set it to the same thumping music as the rest of their slight 72-minute picture, which is all facts and figures (the directors seem as obsessed with slight differences in huge signing bonuses as the kids) and no heart. And let’s be honest: Doesn’t your heart sink when you read the words “Narrated by John Leguizamo”?

Four years ago, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”) made a lovely feature film called “Sugar” about a Dominican pelotero; it contains more truth than anything on display here. It’s the rare case of a fiction film telling the story better than a documentary.

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