"Pelotero": How Baseball Players Are Produced For A Fast Food Nation

JALISCO, MEXICO - Bartolome Fortunato #23 of the Dominican Republic pitches during a game against Panama during day 8 of the XVI Pan American Games at the Pan American Baseball Stadium. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Pelotero is a movie about two prospects in the Dominican Republic and their path to professional baseball.

Based on that sentence, you might figure it had a lot in common with Hoop Dreams, the remarkable documentary about two Chicago-area high-school basketball players. In a very basic way, maybe it does. Both movies follow a pair of athletic kids with big dreams.

It's not Hoop Dreams, though. It has more in common with Food, Inc. or The World According to Monsanto -- two documentaries about different businesses that, at their cores, are really about the ugly side of capitalism. But in Pelotero, the commodity can think and work the system, too. It's as if Monsanto had to negotiate with genetically engineered seeds instead of manufacturing them and, after securing a deal, the seeds can reveal themselves to be a totally different crop. Surprise! I'm a rutabaga, ************!

That's not an idle comparison, either. In the first few minutes of Pelotero, Dominican trainer Astín Jacobo equates teenage prospects to crops:

… it's like when you harvest the land. You put the seed in the land, and then you put the water in it, you clear it. You do all of this, and then, when it grows, you sell it. That's just how it is.

And Jacobo is one of the more sympathetic figures in the documentary. You don't recoil when he says it. That's just how it is. And toward the end, Porfirio Veras, the Commissioner of Dominican Baseball, tells this to a family looking for help against claims of age-related fraud:

I want to be very clear on this. There is only one MLB. It's a monopoly. And it's their monopoly. They're the ones who govern the business and make the rules of the game.

Those are the bookends. It isn't a story about kids rising through the ranks, hoping to become huge stars. It's about commodities; the buyers want to limit the cost, and the sellers want to get as much money as possible. In between, there's often duplicity on both sides. And the whole thing is run by a legal monopoly. There isn't a lot of trust. There shouldn't be a lot of trust.

There might be some Hoop Dreams-like suspense for the casual fan who wonders if the kids end up making it, but that's really not the point. For one thing, one of the featured prospects is Miguel Sano, and you probably know him as one of the very best prospects in the game. You know he signs a deal and plays professionally. For another, even the prospects don't talk about making the majors and hitting a home run in the World Series. For them, everything's about July 2, when the 16-year-olds can sign a contract for the first time.

July 2, July 2, July 2 … that's the dream of these kids, at least in the short-term. That's the dream they've seen their peers realize, the tangible reward for their talent and labor. The movie opens with footage of kids playing stickball among shacks and goats. When kids want to work on their swing, they use a bat to beat up an old tire. You get the July 2 part.

Before July 2 arrives, though, there are whispers about Sano's age. And once there are whispers, there's a stigma, even if there isn't a lot of evidence to support the whispers. Ask Jeff Bagwell about that. And the whispers lead to a drawn-out investigation that extends well beyond July 2, which lowers Sano's value. As more and more teams commit their Dominican budgets to different players, Sano has less and less leverage.

In the documentary, the first whispers of concern over Sano's age come from Rene Gayo, the Pirates' director of Latin American scouting. And later on, it's revealed that the Pirates are the only team with an offer on the table. Gee, that's an odd coincidence!

The other subject of the documentary is Jean Carlos Batista, a lower-profile prospect than Sano, but still hoping to extract a seven-figure payday. Almost a third of that money would go to Jacobo, who spent three years housing, feeding, and training Batista. The Astros offer him $450,000. Batista turns it down, against the advice of Jacobo. Their relationship and the outcome of Batista's contract shows that the lack of trust isn't just between MLB teams and prospects. There's enough shadiness and lying to get passed around like a venereal disease.

And like the best social documentaries about big business, you're left to kick back and think, "Well, looks like I'm sure a part of this problem! I'll think about this for a few days before returning to my routine." Because if the players are commodities, to whom are they sold? Us. Baseball fans. You don't really care about the bonus that your team's set-up man signed ten years ago. You just want him to get Joey Votto out. And if he can't, well, see if there's someone else who can. There needs to be a conveyer belt of players working at all times, bringing the fresh talent in, and shuttling the old talent out. You don't care how it happens. In the eighth inning of a 2-2 game, I sure don't.

It makes you appreciate a guy like Eugenio Velez, who has long been one of my favorite muses. Velez was 22 when he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2004 -- a non-prospect's non-prospect. An unsigned 22-year-old Dominican is like a 37-year-old in AAA. But Velez eventually went on to make the majors. He's probably the most successful player to ever come out of the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 draft. According to Baseball Reference, he's made over a million dollars in his career. Pelotero makes you appreciate that, more than Velez's major-league record of consecutive at-bats without a hit. (For position players, that is. And it's still active!)

Major League Baseball doesn''t care for Pelotero. Of course they didn't. Bud Selig:

I have not seen it, but a number of our people have seen it. We thought there were parts of it that were unfair, were inaccurate.

And Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of economics and league affairs:

The principal reason we objected was that it doesn't reflect the changes that have been made. It's outdated.

And, really, if you go into a documentary thinking you're about to be told the unfettered, raw truth of a situation, you're the type of person who can get sucked into Loose Change or Bowling For Columbine without a lot of critical thinking. Not to get preachy, but that's probably not a good idea. Even after adjusting for skepticism and narrative leeway, though, it's pretty hard to see how MLB comes out looking squeaky clean in this.

Which is maybe something one of the producers of the movie should have been concerned with. Seeing as he's the manager of the Boston Red Sox and all.

It's unlikely that you'll be surprised by a whole lot in Pelotero. There isn't that wind-knocked-out-of-you moment that makes you rethink everything you knew about baseball players from the Dominican Republic. But it's compelling. It's fascinating. It moves quickly, and it's relatively short. You can fit about three Peloteros into one Hoop Dreams. More importantly, it's a necessary reminder of what's behind the curtain of the sport you love.

Pelotero ends with a written statement from the person who ostensibly acts as the villain of Pelotero. He defends what he did while refusing to acknowledge he did anything wrong.

It was the entire documentary distilled into a few words. And it might as well have read, "Forget it, Jake. It's the Dominican Republic."

Pelotero is playing in limited release around the country. It's also available to rent on iTunes for $6.99, which I found out after sitting in traffic for an hour after seeing it in a theater. So, yeah.

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