In an early scene in the documentary Ballplayer: Pelotero, an amiable baseball trainer explains the purpose of the Dominican Republic training camps. He likens nurturing a young player to planting a seed, watering it and clearing away the weeds. “And then when it grows,” he says, “you sell it.”
That is how the business of baseball works on this island nation, where an estimated 100,000 young men train full time for the chance to become professional ball players in the United States. Trevor Martin, A08, who co-directed the film, spent a year there documenting the lives of two young prospects.
He says the system helps explain why 20 percent of professional players in the United States are Dominican. “It’s like a classical colonialism approach,” says Martin, who majored in international relations at Tufts. “It’s like these kids are raw materials to be exported en masse, refined in the Major League system and then sold to the American public.”
All the players dream of making it big; most never will. The same could be said of kids in most American inner cities. Yet the Dominican players typically come from the poorest neighborhoods, and often drop out of school at 12 or 13 and leave their families to train at the baseball camps. “They dangle this big payday, which encourages them to treat it as a real career option,” Martin says.
Martin was recruited to Pelotero by two other young directors, Jon Paley from Washington University in St. Louis and Ross Finkel from the University of Colorado, who wanted to make a movie about what makes Dominican players so good. They liked that Martin already had experience in Latin America from his two student films—financed in part by Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership—which dealt with the growing violence against human rights defenders in Bogotá and alliances between right-wing drug-trafficking paramilitary death squads and Colombian politicians. Plus, they needed someone who spoke Spanish. Martin, in turn, recruited Casey Beck, A07, who would be instrumental in filming and interviewing.
They landed on the island in 2009. “We looked ridiculous,” Martin admits: four white college kids in a beat-up ’94 Camry, with their broken Spanish and their camera equipment, trying to maneuver their way through the training camps and the slums where many of the players’ families live. He says the clown factor may actually have helped them at first. And then the players got used to having them around. “We didn’t leave,” he says. “We just kept coming back every day.”
Soon after shooting started, Martin knew the film would not just be about children swinging broomsticks at rolled-up socks in the dusty streets. The Dominican recruitment business is its own game, with its own peculiar rules, one of which has to do with age. Major League Baseball puts a hefty premium on players who are 16, the youngest age they can sign a contract.
MLB reasons that it needs to sign Dominican players younger, to allow time for training them and teaching them English. “It provides a rationale behind devaluing older players in the market,” Martin says. Teams may offer millions to a handful of 16-year-olds, while hundreds of players who are older, so-called “old men,” may settle for tens of thousands.
Families will alter birth records, or buy the identity of a younger neighbor, just to shave a year off their son’s age. In the film, we meet the tall and powerful Miguel Angel Sanó, the top prospect in the 2009 season, who is kept in limbo as MLB investigators put him through a battery of DNA tests and bone scans to verify his age and identity.
One of Sanó’s relatives accuses the Pittsburgh Pirates’ scout, who has been courting Sanó, of creating suspicion to keep other teams from making an offer. Each day the investigation drags on, the player’s market value drops, until, Sanó says, an MLB investigator offers to stop the investigation if Sanó admits he is 19 and signs with the Pirates.
Alan Klein, a professor of sociology-anthropology at Northeastern University and the author of several books about baseball in the Dominican Republic, including the upcoming Dominican Baseball: New Pride, Old Prejudice, says other filmmakers have tried to document the system.
“What distinguishes these filmmakers was they actually spent time on the ground. You could tell, because they were able to get deeper into the system.” Deep enough to have a camera rolling when Sanó’s family appeals for help from the Dominican baseball commissioner, who tells them his hands are tied. “There is only one MLB. It’s a monopoly,” he tells them. “I am totally clear. This is happening because he’s poor.”
By the time they returned to the United States, the directors were broke. After a year of desperate pitches to investors, a friend introduced them to the former professional ballplayer Bobby Valentine (he would, of course, go on to become manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2011). Valentine had formed a small media company to produce sports documentaries. He liked what he saw, and signed on as producer.
The film has been a rock in the cleat of MLB. A spokesman said that the film, shot in 2009, has “inaccuracies and misrepresentations that don’t reflect the current status of operations in the Dominican Republic.” Klein says MLB has tried to address problems—such as alleged skimming of signing bonuses by scouts—that have been pointed out to them. But he adds: “These filmmakers got it right, and the fact of the matter is that those kinds of things happen and will continue to happen as long as the Dominican Republic is a third-world country.”
Martin concedes that baseball adds hundreds of millions of dollars to the country’s economy. “That’s what makes it such a complex issue,” he says. “You can’t just look at Major League Baseball and condemn them outright.”
For his part, he still loves the game, which he played in high school. And he still plans to go to Major League games. It will just be with a different appreciation for what the players have gone through to get there.
This story first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Tufts Magazine.
Julie Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.