The stellar new documentary Pelotero shines a light on the way Major League Baseball has used the Dominican Republic as a pipeline for talent over the past forty years by following a pair of up-and-coming prospects leading up to Signing Day in 2009. The 75-minute film is screening in select cities, and is also available as a rental for $6.99 via both amazon and iTunes.
Pelotero started out as a simple documentary about the way MLB mines talent in the Dominican Republic, focusing on two young players, Miguel Angel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista, as they approached their 16th birthdays and the July 2nd date after which they’d be allowed to sign pro contracts. The directors appear to have gained almost unfettered access to both players, their families, and their trainers, as well as a surprising number of on-camera quotes from scouts with major league teams operating in the Dominican. That alone would have made the film worth seeing, but it probably wouldn’t have had much narrative greed to keep the attention of a larger audience.
As some of you probably remember, Sano ended up at the center of a controversy over his actual age and identity, one the directors were able to follow in real time and to expose in a way that has to have MLB and the Pittsburgh Pirates deeply unhappy. The film makes it quite clear that the family blames Pittsburgh’s top scout in the Dominican Republic, Rene Gayo, for starting the rumors about Sano’s age and then colluding with the MLB investigator (who, off camera, tells Sano to sign with the Pirates for $2 million to make the investigation go away) so he can acquire the player at a discount. The most damning evidence, obtained via a hidden camera, has Gayo strongly implying to the family that he is the reason Sano was partially cleared – and that they should sign with Pittsburgh as a result. The unfolding of this drama, as well as a similar if smaller-scale issue affecting Batista, and the associated effects on the players’ families, turns an ordinary documentary focusing on the exploitation of young Dominican players into a scathing indictment of corruption in MLB’s operations on the island. (The film concludes with a note that MLB declined an opportunity to respond on camera, and that MLB now claims that the depictions in the film are “inaccurate” and no longer reflect the league’s operations and conduct on the island. Gayo is still employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates and says, in another statement displayed before the credits, that he simply did his job. You can read some of MLB’s comments here and here, and it is fair for them to argue that their regulation in the Dominican Republic is stronger today than it was in 2009.)
Setting aside the specific questions of culpability in the Sano case, which may have cost him $1-2 million off his ultimate signing bonus, the film’s greatest contribution is its exposure of how Dominican prospects are treated like chattel in a factory system where independent trainers will develop players on contingency, taking up to 35% of their eventual signing bonuses, while MLB teams pay lower bonuses there than they do to comparable American- or Canadian-born prospects. The new CBA, which caps each team’s total international expenditures on all players in this signing season at a figure less than what the seventh overall pick in this June’s draft received by himself, only makes the varying treatment of players by their places of birth even more stark. Pelotero shows how much Dominican players’ families come to count on a large signing bonus as their lottery ticket out of poverty, with some players (including Sano) living in heartbreaking conditions before they sign – and relative opulence afterwards. The promise of a life-changing bonus leads to a clear sense of entitlement on the sides of some players, to Batista’s mother apparently viewing her son as a cash cow, and to incentives for players to try to cheat the system by lying about their ages or identities. MLB and Gayo come off as the villians of Sano’s story, but that doesn’t mean the players or their camps are heroes.
The directors of Pelotero deserve much credit for staying out of the story, with minimal narration from John Leguizamo that offers some slightly pro-player commentary early in the film but that largely drops off as the Sano controversy takes over. The flip side of their hands-off style is that once that storyline becomes the film’s center, the balance begins to shift, unavoidably, to Sano’s side – we are watching it from his house, and hearing most of the commentary from him, his family, and his agent, but other than Gayo, who comes off horribly, we don’t get MLB’s side because they declined to comment on film. There was little the directors could have done to restore the balance without participation from the Commissioner’s Office, but the film does suffer slightly in the end from their absence. It is an outstanding film even with that caveat, a must-watch for any baseball fan. After you hear a trainer casually toss out “planting seeds” and “harvesting” as a metaphor for how he develops teenaged prospects before they turn 16, you will find it hard to look at any Dominican prospect the same way.