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Sugar (2008).

March 16, 2010

The Scoop:
Baseball is king in the Dominican Republic. Of course, it is throughout Latin America. (In 2008, the year “Sugar” was made, Latin Americans accounted for more than 25 percent of all players in the major leagues.) But the Dominican tops the region as a baseball factory, producing more major leaguers than all other Latin nations combined. This unbelievably poor nation has produced some of the giants of the modern game, including Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa and David Ortiz. Teenagers from the slums of San Pedro de Macoris to the rural sugarcane fields flock to baseball academies run by dozens of MLB teams or former players, hoping to catch the eyes of scouts and cash in on American baseball riches. But the road these players travel is a difficult one.

“Sugar” tells the story of one such player, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Angelis Perez Soto), a serious, introspective 19-year-old pitcher who makes the journey from a Dominican baseball academy, to spring training, to the American minor leagues. Along the way, culture shock and the difficulties of competition make him begin to question his passion for the game. It’s a thoughtful, caring movie that tackles a subject not typically handled on film, and it does so with great sensitivity.

Soto’s range as an actor is pretty limited, but that serves the material well as he plays an introvert facing a strange culture and a huge language barrier. (Soto himself spoke very little English when he took the role.) Because Sugar’s journey takes him to so many destinations and introduces him to so many people, most of the other roles are little more than bit parts. But the standouts in those parts include Andre Holland as up-and-coming second baseman Brad Johnson, Michael Gaston as Sugar’s minor league manager Stu Sutton, and Jaime Tirelli as Osvaldo, the carpenter who gives Sugar a new father figure.

The storytelling here is top-notch. Writers/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden give the film an understated documentary feel that makes its points with gentle subtlety. While some parts of the script fall victim to a kitchen sink approach that tries to throw in glimpses at all sorts of problems like racism, performance-enhancing drugs and agent graft, it mostly stays on target by focusing on Sugar’s loneliness and isolation as a stranger in America , as well as his struggles in throwing the spike curve.

In fact, it’s the little baseball details like the spike curve that give the movie one of its strength. It is written and directed with a firm understanding of the inside nuances of baseball, and all the actors, from the leads down to the extras, are current or former ballplayers who are doing it for real on camera. It’s a level of authentic on-field performance that is still pretty rare for baseball movies.

“Sugar” was made in 2008, but not released until 2009, when HBO Films sent it straight to DVD with barely any theatrical exposure outside of the festival circuit. That’s a shame, because this is a film that deserves to be seen.

Best Bit:
The Vic Power story.

Side Note:
The director of Sugar’s baseball academy in the Dominican is played by former major leaguer Jose Rijo, who pitched for 14 seasons for the Yankees, Athletics and Reds. After he retired, he went to work as a special assistant to Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden and opened his own Dominican academy. In February 2009, after shooting his scenes for “Sugar” but before the film was released, he was fired by the Nationals after fraud was discovered among some of his player signings, and his academy was shut down. One week later, Bowden resigned following an FBI investigation into the skimming of bonus money paid to Latin American players.

Companion Viewing:
“Bull Durham” (1988).

Official site.
Cardboard Gods.
A history of baseball in the Dominican Republic.
How to throw the spike curve.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

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