“People tell me I’m the top prospect in the country,” says Dominican shortstop Miguel Angel Sanó. “People say teams will give me all the money in the world.” As he speaks, a montage in the documentary Pelotero shows why. He’s got a “tremendous bat,” he “makes the difficult plays,” he’s got “unbelievable potential.” He’s also 15 years old.
In this last aspect, at least, Miguel is not so unusual in the Dominican Republic. Training since he was 12 with Moreno Tejada’s program in San Pedro de Marcoris, he’s hoping for his chance at the big time, being scouted by American major league teams. His stepfather Elvin Francisco offers caution. “There are times when I tell him not everyone he talks to is his friend. They give you a cap and tell you they’re your friend, but you need to think about why they’re giving you the cap. Think!”
Seated in a folding chair, surrounded by dirt and backed by a cement block wall, Elvin makes clear the hopes and anxieties Miguel represents. The scene cuts inside, where Elvin sits so a fax machine and the kitchen are visible behind him. “Sometimes he acts like any other kid and you want to kick his butt. But other times, he acts like someone very capable,” he says, right before the camera cuts to show Miguel beside him. He wears an Oakland As cap and a Pittsburgh Pirates t-shirt, and smiles broadly, “We’re going to make it!” he exults, arm extended in victory salute. “Speak seriously,” Elvin sighs. “Say a full sentence, say something that’s important to you, like ‘What does baseball mean to you?’ About how you’ve had to struggle, something profound, something with meaning, something serious.” Miguel makes a kissy face: I love you!” Elvin looks exasperated.
The dynamic here suggests what’s at stake for Miguel and his family. If he can sign a big contract, he can provide for everyone, buy his mother a house and ensure his siblings can attend school. If, however, he can’t secure an MLB team’s interest by July 2nd, signing day, his future, like that of most of his impoverished community, is bleak.
That date, each year, puts a lot of pressure on prospects like Miguel, in part because MLB scouts place a premium on players at 16. After that, they become less attractive, sometimes exponentially and apparently arbitrarily, though of course the stake is money—how much the prospect can earn and how much the American organizations can keep from spending. A recent change in the MLB’s CBA has caused “concern” on both ends. If the change results in an international draft, DR and Venezuelan players can no longer be signed for less money than their US counterparts and all contracts will count toward teams’ salary caps, and, not incidentally, underscore the disparity in signing ages for US (18) and DR players (to repeat, 16).
Such imminent problems are related to corruptions made visible in Pelotero. Filmed over a year in the Dominican Republic by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin, and Jon Paley, the film follows Miguel’s story alongside that of 16-year-old Jean Carlos Batista, who trains with Ástin Jacobo’s program. Both prospects hope to sign by July 2, 2009. “I was 10 when I first heard about July 2nd,” remembers Jean Carlos. He heard about two boys signing contracts for $500,000 and $400,000. “Ever since I heard those words,” he says, “I’ve been working hard to get to that day. And I won’t stop till I get to the majors.”
Such ambition is admirable and understandable, shaped by splashy media images and a lengthening history of success (some 20% of MLB players are from the DR, among them Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano). It’s also a huge business that’s not precisely monitored. “No one knows for sure,” narrates John Leguizamo. “But it’s estimated that over 100,000 peloteros train full time in small programs across the island.” According to the documentary—which opened last week in select theaters, as well as on VOD and iTunes—the MLB, being a monopoly, can dictate terms, schedules, and expectations, exploiting players in this extensive, exploitative farm system.
Given the high stakes all around, it’s not surprising that scams have been uncovered, including the infamous case of Esmailyn Gonzalez, signed in 2006 by the Nationals with a $1.4 million signing bonus. A post-signing investigation revealed that his birth certificate was false, and that he was not 18 as he—and his family and agents—had said, but 22 (a related scandal had to do with suspicions that Nationals general manager Jim Bowden had been skimming money from international signees for decades: he resigned following the Gonzalez matter). Now, the film points out, “Teams are on high alert for the slightest hint of fraud.”
This means that they frequently initiate negotiations into prospects’ backgrounds, sometimes for real reasons and sometimes to offer lower contracts, that is, to exploit players in new ways. If these and other industry tensions are not specific to the DR farm system, they are, as Pelotero makes plain, too typical here. It’s not that Dominican players are, as some of the young prospects joke here, so much “better” than the gringos at the game. It’s that the gringos are gaming them.