Monday, July 09, 2012

Ballplayer (Pelotero): Meet the D.R.’s Chief Export

When the man who signed off on Mo Vaughn’s disastrous Mets tenure has some criticisms regarding Major League Baseball recruitment in the Dominican Republic, fans in Flushing might not be particularly inclined to hear him out.  In fact, Bobby Valentine, whose Red Sox are currently two and a half games back in the wild card race (as of yesterday), never appears on camera, but he serves as the above-the-title executive producer of Ross Finkel, Jon Paley, and Trevor Martin’s documentary, Ballplayer (Pelotero), which opens this Friday in New York (trailer here).

The fireworks come two days early in the D.R.  July 2nd is the first day MLB teams can sign prospective young Dominican players.  Young is the right term too, considering eligibility starts at age sixteen.  Indeed, age is something scouts and agents obsess over—the younger the player, the higher the signing bonus.  Questions regarding their true age will dog two players the Guagua Productions team follows as the signing season kick-off approaches and passes.

Miguel Angel Sanó looks like a multi-tool sure thing.  However, the MLB’s Dominican office has initiated an investigation to determine whether the athlete is really sixteen or possibly seventeen years of age.  He undergoes all manner of tests including bone density scans, the results of which are all consistent with a finding of sixteen years, but are deemed inconclusive by the league.  Unfortunately, the prolonged inquiry scares otherwise interested suitors away from Sanó.  Meanwhile, Juan Carlos Battista, a promising player not quite of Sanó’s caliber, has rejected a $300,000 signing bonus, hoping to holdout for a better offer.

There seems to be something seriously awry with the League’s business and investigational practices in the Dominican, but the film’s observational format limits its effectiveness as an expose.  Focusing solely on the players and their inner circles, none of the filmmakers ever march a camera into the MLB office to ask where the Sanó inquiry stands.  Given the opportunity, someone could have explained what MLB required to close the case file or they might have stonewalled like Eric Holder at a Fast-and-Furious hearing.  Either way, it would have been revealing.

Eventually, Ballplayer clearly implies Pittsburg Pirates scout Rene Gayo is the villain behind Sanó’s woes.  Yet, for all the questions it raises about MLB practices, it lets the Dominican government completely off the hook.  Regardless of the legitimate questions raised about the League’s recruitment operations, there is something profoundly wrong about a national economy in which a young person’s hopes of success are solely dependent on their ability to hit, throw, or catch a baseball.

If nothing else, Gayo certainly gets the Sixty Minutes treatment in Ballplayer.  The filmmakers’ choice of POV figures also offers an unexpectedly effective counterpoint, underscoring the murky way sport and business intersect in the D.R.  Though it should have probed a bit deeper, Ballplayer is an intriguing sports doc, fully aware of the moral complexity of the given situation.  Recommended for viewers of HBO’s Real Sports and ESPN’s 50 for 50 series, it opens this Friday (7/13) in New York at the Quad Cinema.