“The gringos may have invented baseball,” a Dominican teenage trainee tells the camera in Ballplayer: Pelotero, “but we’re just better at playing it.” There’s a fair case to be made for his claim—20 percent of the combined major and minor league players in the U.S. are from the Dominican Republic—though as this only half-satisfying documentary illuminates, the situation is a lot more complicated than that statistic.
Ballplayer: Pelotero starts as an examination of the rich, multifarious topic of major-league baseball’s use of the DR as a source of affordable talent. There, players who’ve trained hard for the entirety of their young lives are cheaper to sign than homegrown prospects (though the price tags have gone up), and pro ball has become a dream through which families aim to raise themselves out of poverty. Like other major industries, baseball is taking advantage of outsourcing, and in the process has created a cutthroat environment where the potential for significant dollar figures has led to deception, corruption, and ruthless competition.
Narrated by John Leguizamo, Ballplayer: Pelotero gets too caught up in the specifics of the stories of its two main subjects: Jean Carlos Batista, a decent player who treats his trainer as a surrogate father, and Miguel Angel Sano, one of the country’s top picks. Both claim to be 16, the prime and earliest age at which they can sign a contract, and both are investigated under suspicion of having moved up their dates of birth to make themselves look like better prospects, a common bit of fraud. It’s symptomatic of a setup in which there are huge advantages to signing as young as possible, at an age when the players’ American equivalents are probably more concerned with getting their driver’s licenses.
In narrowing down to the similar specifics of these two experiences—particularly Sano’s, which become of national interest as his chances of getting signed are stalled—Ballplayer: Pelotero passes up a realm of pressing big-picture questions about how kids end up with trainers, what happens to those who don’t make it, and what happens to those who do, since not all of them get to the majors. With its slim runtime, the film feels like it should have gone broader or closed in and been just a portrait of the talented, goofy Sano. As is, it’s a wealth of semi-examined ideas about globalization and a twist on the commoditization of our national pastime, all of which are tumbled out, then largely set aside.