Baseball may be America's pastime, but it's something even bigger in the Dominican Republic -- one of the few chances for impoverished teenagers and their families to strike it rich. The tiny nation has become a baseball factory in recent decades, producing roughly 20 percent of the players in the major and minor leagues. But these players aren't chosen by teams in the annual June draft that turns such U.S. high school and college kids as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg into instant stars.
Dominican players are signed as teenagers -- 16 to be exact. And making sure that they are exactly 16 has become one of Major League Baseball's most serious problems. There's been an epidemic of players using altered birth dates to appear younger, and it has made the signing process even more contentious, invasive and exploitive than it already was.
Radar guns, stopwatches and batting cages are the tools most frequently associated with scouting young baseball players to determine who might become a future big leaguer. In the Dominican Republic, that list now includes birth certificates, DNA samples and bone scans.
This seedy process is at the heart of "Ballplayer: Pelotero," an efficient and often enthralling documentary that follows the plights of two Dominican hopefuls on their path to the major leagues. It's sort of a "Hoop Dreams" for baseball, following a rags-to-hopefully-riches narrative, and it succeeds thanks to a narrow focus, excellent access and serious stakes for those involved.
The filmmakers -- Ross Finkel, Jonathan Paley and Trevor Martin -- mostly stay out of the way and let the events unfold before them, which is why the film works so well. There is legit suspense that most feature films would love to have, and "Pelotero" (which means ballplayer in Spanish) presents it well.
The story tracks two players over the course of 2008 and 2009, leading up to the annual signing day of July 2, commonly referred to as "Dominican Christmas."
Miguel Angel Sano (now a top prospect for the Twins) is the wunderkind, one of the best young players the Dominican Republic has ever produced. He lives in squalor -- we see the rotted-out mattresses in his dilapidated shack of a home -- but soon will be a millionaire. Jean Carlos Batista is more of an underdog -- his father died when Jean Carlos was young and the family's financial future hinges on the size of the youth's bonus. The players go through drills and meet with scouts; they don't attend school.
Sano and Batista may be the focus, but the shady characters will stick with viewers just as much. It seems that everyone's best interests are accounted for, except that of the players. One scout refers to the teenage ballplayers as "merchandise." Sano's agent, Rob Plummer, says at one point, "I basically broker Dominican 16-year-olds to Major League Baseball teams."
There aren't many heroes, but plenty of villains and victims -- and the motives of players' parents, trainers and the kids themselves are questioned, too.
"Pelotero" is neither a "Field of Dreams"-type uplifting baseball experience, nor a definitive expos on a broken system. But it's a story with serious human drama that will make you think a little differently the next time you watch your favorite team take the field.
Three out of four stars.