Documentarians Jonathan Paley, Ross Finkel and Trevor Marin lucked out while filming young baseball players in the Dominican Republic, a hot topic after the success of “Sugar.” With an inherently suspenseful setup — a long buildup to a single day of Major League contract signings that will determine the future of its talented hopefuls — the docu would have doubtless secured a berth on sports channels in any case. But what gives “Pelotero” its edge is a nexus of corruption, exploitation and betrayal that transforms this well-shot, cannily edited item into an engrossing expose. Further play is assured, with limited theatrical definitely in the ballpark.
Jazzing up its exposition with archival footage and John Leguizamo’s narration, the docu concisely establishes the well-known facts — not just the importance of baseball to Dominicans as a ticket out of poverty, but also the importance of Dominicans to baseball; they rep 20% of all professional players in the U.S. Every Major League team has a scout in the D.R., and an MLB office is quartered in Santa Domingo. With this level of investment, it is hardly surprising MLB feels free to call the shots and impose its own rules.
“Pelotero” winds up following two players, shortstop Jean Carlos Batista and five-tool talent Miguel Angel Sano, a hot prospect regarded as the next big thing. Filmmakers chronicle the training period from the beginning of the season until July 2, the date on which 16-year-olds are eligible to be snatched up. Every day after that, a player’s expected signing bonus decreases. Formerly, Dominicans received a small fraction of the astronomical figures commanded by their Stateside peers, but recent years have seen more equity. Batista is hoping for $650,000; estimates on Sano’s offer run closer to $5 million.
But not every team can afford to pay such enormous sums for promising players, and an unscrupulous coach, possibly in cahoots with MLB, sets out to deflate Sano’s asking price, planting rumors and placing roadblocks to his success. Meanwhile, Batista, having rejected a contract he felt low-balled him, becomes mired in a controversy of his own making. The drama affects not only the kids and their families, but the extremely articulate trainers who have overseen the development of the peloteros for countless months and have pinned their dreams (and their commissions) on their talents.
Casual interviews with scouts, reporters, teammates and relatives, framed by colorful if ramshackle homes, streets and ball fields, keep the docu flowing smoothly as outrageous events overtake the scenario.