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April 30, 2012

Changing Speeds

Pelotero, or, There's Sano Business Like Show Business

by Ken Funck

During last year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, I watched a documentary entitled Open Season, about the events surrounding the tragic shootings of eight deer hunters in northern Wisconsin by a trespassing Minnesotan. The film was reasonably well-made and even-handed, given that the shooter happened to be a Hmong refugee and the victims were white Midwesterners, facts that could have easily enabled a broad black-and-white narrative of culture clash and racism rather than the grey-scale collision of individuals in a moment of escalating conflict. Watching the film didn’t teach me anything new about the shootings and subsequent trial, as both occurred near my hometown, two of the victims were related to me, and it was unlikely the filmmakers could learn and express as much about the events and the environment surrounding them as I already knew, having to some extent lived them.

What I did learn, or perhaps more accurately had reinforced, was a sense of how you need to watch a documentary film. There were scenes in Open Season that I felt didn’t ring true, or seemed woefully incomplete, without the context that I personally possessed but the film was unwilling or unable to provide. One example: a defense attorney asserts that the term “mud duck,” used by one of the victims, is a racial epithet, when it’s actually a dismissive used in western Wisconsin to describe all Minnesotans—a subtle yet important difference of which the filmmakers were quite aware. Yet the film was edited so as to not only leave the assertion unchallenged but to highlight it, likely leaving viewers with a false impression.

I don’t say this to impugn the motives of documentary filmmakers, but to point out the inherent limitations of documentary film. If you’ve ever witnessed politicians or national media come to your backyard, mispronounce local place names, and mischaracterize local events, you’ve probably learned the same lessons I have about the shortcomings of anyone telling a story based on limited personal exposure to that story’s characters and events. Whether deliberately to support the filmmaker’s preferred narrative or need for structure, or inadvertently due to time constraints or incomplete information, no documentary film should ever be viewed as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Itshould be thought of as a single pane of a kaleidoscope of viewpoints, which even collectively may not give you the whole picture.

I mention all this as a reminder should you catch a showing of Pelotero, an entertaining and well-crafted documentary film about the signing of teenaged ballplayers in the Dominican Republic that is currently touring the festival circuit and may reach theaters in July. Pelotero tells the story (or at least one version of the story) of the signing of Twins uber-prospect Miguel Sano and Astros farmhand Jean Batista to professional contracts during the summer of 2009, showing us the interplay of local buscones, team scouts, big-time agents, and the impoverished families of local ballplayers that collectively help feed MLB’s insatiable Latin American talent pipeline.

Baseball Prospectus ran an excellent series of articles that summer by Kiley McDaniel (you can find some of them here, here, and here) that details how the sausage is made, and Jason Parks devoted a typically engaging chapter to the subject in our latest book, Extra Innings, but knowledge of the July 2nd signing day process or even an abiding love of baseball isn’t required to enjoy Pelotero. If you hope to see it and don’t want to read any spoilers, you can just take my recommendation that you’ll enjoy it (and that of my wife, who isn’t a baseball fan but loved the film) and be on your merry way. For those who want more detail and don’t mind reading a large chunk of the film’s plot, particularly its take on the aborted negotiations between Sano and the Pittsburgh Pirates, read on.

Pelotero, much like its spiritual godfather Hoop Dreams, tells the story of two very young, very talented, very poor athletes being fed into what can easily be portrayed as a corrupt and exploitative system. The film describes how local scouts recommend talented 12-year-old players to the buscones, who house, train, and mentor them, hoping to recoup their investment when they eventually broker a professional deal. Agents from the U.S. are involved with the top prospects as well, and between them, they usually take roughly half of a player’s eventual signing bonus. Players turning 16 are eligible to sign with any team on or after July 2nd, creating a system that can be rife with kickbacks, coercion, and untold other shady practices as players are steered to certain teams. With such a backdrop, it would have been easy to produce a ham-fisted narrative of oppression—i.e., major-league teams and super-agents taking advantage of local agents, who in turn cheat poor teenagers and their families—but to its credit, Pelotero is far more nuanced than that.

The film follows Sano and Batista from early spring through their eventual offers and signings, enduring both high-stakes workouts at team facilities and lingering questions about their true age. Sano is introduced as the year’s Big Deal, and it’s easy to see why. A preternaturally talented man-child with a megawatt smile, we hear scout after scout rave about the soon-to-be-ex-shortstop’s raw power and maturity. Many predict his U.S. agent, Rob Plummer, will be able to negotiate a record-breaking bonus, and while I’m no scout, the scenes of Sano at the plate make you understand what all the excitement was about.

Batista, on the other hand, is described as a mid-tier shortstop prospect hoping for a bonus in the $500,000 range. Unlike the drool-inducing Sano, Batista doesn’t have a U.S. agent or a host of teams clamoring for his attention—rather, his trainer and surrogate father, Astin Jacobo, needs to shop him aggressively. The contrast between Sano and Batista, and the size of their expected paydays, is often stark, as when we see Plummer move Sano’s large family into much nicer housing in the lead-up to signing day, while Batista’s widowed mother struggles to make ends meet. In the end, however, both run afoul of the same question that plagues so many prospective Dominican signees: Are they really only 16?

The age question is first introduced when we see Sano working out at the Pirates facility. Rene Gayo, Pittsburgh’s Latin America scouting director, warns Sano’s representatives that the young star’s physical and emotional maturity have led to whispers that he is older than 16. The bulk of the movie follows this plot, with Sano’s family working with the Pirates and MLB officials to verify his identity and age, a process that sees July 2nd come and go without a satisfactory resolution.

The interplay between Sano’s family, his representatives, the Pirates, and the league office during this period has been written about extensively in other places (among them this piece by Jorge Arangure), often with notable he-said-she-said bitterness surrounding Sano’s eventual signing with the Twins. The Pirates claim Sano wanted to sign with them and blamed Plummer when their initial $2.6 million bid—the only one on the table while MLB’s age investigation dragged on—was rebuffed, and they weren’t allowed to match or exceed Minnesota’s eventual $3.15 million offer. The film gives a somewhat different account of those days, and it is here that you have to remember that Pelotero’s narrative may or may not be complete and/or accurate.

Just as Hoop Dreams framed coach Gene Pingatore in a negative light, Gayo is cast as Pelotero’s villain, with the film hinting that he ginned up the age controversy to scare off other teams and give the Pirates more leverage when negotiating with Sano. As the investigation drags on, we see the Sano family arrive at the league offices for a meeting with Gayo and MLB’s investigator. Gayo leads them inside to discuss something “away from the cameras;” subsequently, the family claims both Gayo and the investigator guaranteed them a positive outcome if Sano were to sign with the Pirates.

We are then shown an angry Sano family setting up a hidden camera in their house to catch Gayo saying something incriminating about this purported conspiracy—we hear Miguel’s mother steering Gayo to the overstuffed chair on which the camera is trained “so he’ll be more comfortable”—but there is no smoking gun, merely some talk that the Pirates are the only team who will make Sano an offer since they are the only one fully convinced of his age. The film’s narrative is that the family grew to distrust a deceitful Gayo, who got what was coming to him when Sano eventually signed with the Twins, but who can be sure? It’s impossible to know whether Pelotero’s take is the complete truth or just the most compelling way to convey a complex story—but compelling it is.

Concurrently, Batista is offered $350,000 from the Astros and turns it down in hopes of a larger payday, until questions about his age are also raised. The film shows both the Sano family and Batista’s trainer working to prove each player’s age. The contrast between the two is again clear: Sano undergoes a bone scan (funded by the Pirates) that sets his age as 16-17, and we see his family gather additional birth documentation and affidavits from Miguel’s elementary school teachers, who swear the age on his report cards are correct—“How dare they question a teacher with a Master’s Degree?” is the film’s biggest laugh line.

What the film shows us seems to be strong confirmation of Sano’s age, although the eventual MLB determination was that Sano was who he said he was but his age was “undetermined.” Conversely, Jacobo shows us a birth ledger that purports to include Batista, but his record is added to the bottom of the page, out of sequence with the other births, and we eventually learn Batista is actually set to turn 18 in November. He eventually signs with the Astros in the spring of 2010 for a much smaller bonus, having permanently damaged his father/son relationship with Jacobo, who dismisses Batista’s protestations that he was unaware of his true age.

Pelotero benefits from compelling characters with fascinating stories, and it wears them well. My only complaint would be that it’s too short. I left wishing to see more about how Sano and Batista began their developmental careers and adjusted to sudden wealth, professional baseball, and a completely foreign culture. Instead, we get only scenes of Sano attending English language classes and maneuvering a massive new SUV through the streets of San Pedro de Macoris, with youngsters yelling out his nickname (“Bocaton!”) as he passes by. I’d love to see more of that film, but as it is, Pelotero is well worth seeking out for its ability to educate and entertain. With talk of an international draft increasing, it may well become the definitive snapshot of a complex and questionable period in baseball history.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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