I’d had Sugar – the 2008 baseball movie, as there are a few films by that tile – saved up on the DVR for months before finally getting around to watching it last night, since I was distracted by The Wire when I had some free time to sit and watch a show. Sugar might be the best pure baseball movie I’ve seen, except that at heart it’s not really a baseball movie, but a movie about being the ultimate fish out of water, and how baseball exploits one of its most dedicated underclasses.
Miguel “Sugar” Santos is a 19-year-old pitcher in the Dominican Republic with arm strength but no real second pitch who signed at some point with the Kansas City Knights before the movie began for just $15,000. Early in the film, an American scout for the Knights visits the team’s academy in Boca Chica and teaches Sugar how to through a spike or knuckle curve, which becomes a separator for him and earns him an invite to spring training and eventually a spot in the rotation of the Bridgetown (Iowa) Swing, KC’s low-A affiliate. Once there, however, things don’t go as smoothly as Sugar and his family had hoped, either on the field, where a minor injury throws off his entire season, or off of it, where he’s isolated by age, culture, and language.
The film’s pacing was a real strength – there’s no racing through the early stages to rush to get Sugar to the U.S., so viewers unfamiliar with the feeder system in the Dominican Republic see something of where these players come from and how tough the odds are against them even getting to the U.S. This isn’t exploitation along the lines of slave labor or sweat shops, but these players often sign for very little money at 16 because their other economic opportunities are limited or nonexistent. Sugar doesn’t focus too much on the baseball season because the team’s performance is secondary to the story of the players; even when we see game action, it’s backdrop.
(The cinematography during those game sequences was really uneven; close-up shots of players throwing the ball around the infield were jerky and hard to watch, but the shots of Sugar pitching were perfect, right down to the change in angles from showing his face to showing the pitch reach the batter.)
Sugar himself is the only fully-developed character, but unlike many single-character movies, the various side characters who play significant roles still manage to contribute to the story without letting their one-dimensionality get in the movie’s way. Sugar stays with the Higgins family, an older couple on a farm a good distance from Bridgetown, providing the ultimate culture shock for Sugar, establishing just how out of water he is in Iowa and how much he’s hindered by language even in the most basic aspects of life, and adding a few moments of humor (the wife telling him to put “sopa” in the washing machine rather than “jabon”). And when things start to fall apart for Sugar, it’s to the Higgins that he turns, because his family has become so wrapped up in his potential for a lucrative baseball career that they are no longer there to support him. We never learn much about the Higgins’, but we shouldn’t – they fulfilled a critical role without unnecessary tangents.
The actor who plays Sugar, Algenis Perez Soto, wasn’t a professional actor but was seen playing baseball by the directors after their casting call didn’t turn up the ideal candidate. (Or so the story goes.) That use of non-professionals reminded me of City of God, a Brazilian film that also used local kids from the dangerous barrio of that name in Rio de Janeiro in what remains one of the best movies I’ve seen. In both movies, which couldn’t be more different in tone or subject matter, there’s a lack of polish to the central characters that makes them look and sound more real.
I mentioned on Twitter that there were minor inaccuracies, but I was happy to forgive them because they were there in service of a stronger plot and consistent pacing. For a 19-year-old pitcher in the Dominican Republic to pick up a spike curveball one fall/winter, then earn an invite to spring training, and then be assigned to a full-season club as a starter is not impossible, but it’s extremely unlikely – and the type of pitcher who’d travel that path wouldn’t find himself in the position Sugar was in later in the film. And that spike curveball is a problem – Sugar is seen throwing it for strikes once he gets the hang of it, but it’s probably the hardest pitch to command, and very few big leaguers throw it; it’s more common for player development folks to convert pitchers from the spike to a traditional curveball or to a slider because the spike is so often in the dirt. I also found it odd that the Stanford alum was so slow to pick up on Sugar’s lack of English skills, but then again, he was also a really nice guy when we know all Stanford alumni are insufferable.
But the filmmakers here seemed to be in command of the points where they bent reality. Moving Sugar along so quickly is necessary; the alternatives are a much longer film or inserting a “six months later…” gap. The spike curveball isn’t the ideal pitch for that situation, but it has a benefit – the grip used to throw one is so unusual relative to those on other pitches that it would be evident to non-baseball fans that this was a new pitch for Sugar. Even when the waitress in the famous “fren toas” scene read a little false to me when she asked Sugar how he wanted his eggs, but that slight off-note came back around thirty seconds later when she brought the food to the table in one of the best scenes in the film.
It would be impossible to avoid comparing Sugar to that baseball movie that came out earlier this fall, which I didn’t like as a movie or as a baseball movie. Sugar has moments of sentiment, but there’s no manipulation of the audience to create them. The main character’s struggles, even though they will be foreign to most U.S. viewers, resonated far more strongly with me because they get at fundamental human needs – the need to belong, to fit in, to succeed, to live up to others’ expectations. And while Sugar doesn’t have a villain on the order of the fictionalized Grady Fuson, it should open some eyes to how much the current system exploits young Latin American players, particularly Dominican players, and discards them if they’re no longer useful to their parent clubs. Some major league teams are better at assimilating Latin American players – particularly in terms of teaching them English – but some are worse, and I know of none that help players once they’re released. (And don’t get me started on our nation’s immigration policies.) The directors made these issues evident to viewers without letting them interfere with the story. This film is about Sugar Santos and his own personal development because of baseball, for better and later for worse, and it deserves a much, much wider audience than it has received to date.
(I might have been kidding about the Stanford stuff, though.)