It’s a revealing portrait of one aspect of the business of baseball that may seem like relatively inconsequential business as usual for the average fan here in the USA, but is a matter or survival for those really young men (16-year-olds) who dream of multi-million dollar signing bonuses that will relieve them of the poverty they and their families live in.
While riveting to watch – the mystery surrounding each young player’s (or pelotero’s) Major League Baseball prospects – it’s actually quite sad and even enraging to witness what plays out like a form of modern day slavery, as this peloteros are treated essentially like merchandise – product to be bought and sold, without having much of a say (given their age and maturity) as to what path their lives will take; all the adults around them – from their local trainers (some of them becoming ersatz fathers to these young men, teaching them not only about the game, but also about life), to the MLB scouts, the MLB itself (a monopoly referred to as a “mafia” by a family member of one of the 2 star prospects followed in this film), to their family members.
They all want something from these kids (money and talent being primary), and I can’t even begin to fathom the pressure and the kind of burden this must be for a 16-year old to carry. It’s a bit much. But each appears to handle the stress well enough – at least on the surface. There’s a confidence that really comes through, and I’d say that’s rooted in believing in one’s abilities, and being put on a pedestal at such a young age, by everyone close to you.
That is until you reach your 16th birthday – the magical day when a young pelotero becomes eligible to sign with a major league “farm” team and ultimately moves up into the majors eventually. It is then that your true “value” is determined by MLB scouts representing teams in the USA, where, astoundingly, as the documentary states, some 20% of professional baseball players are from the Dominican Republic – a tiny island that’s about 3% the size of the USA (in terms of population) – with top players earning $15 to $30+ million annually in salary and bonuses; toss in endorsement contracts for some of those top tier players, and the sky is the limit as to how high yearly income could rise for a few lucky ones.
With so much money at stake, it’s only natural that greed eventually becomes a factor in decisions that are made – greed on all sides: the player prospects, their families and trainers (who get as much as 35% of the player’s signing bonus – a fee that may seem ridiculously high, but you have to consider the fact that these trainers invest years of their time and even money in building these young player prospects; a process that could begin before a kid hits his teens, and continues until signing age, at 16), to the MLB, the teams and their representatives. Everyone has a stake in what happens on signing day – July 2 every year – each wanting to get the best deal they can. The players want the largest signing bonuses (as do their families, for whom some of these players are their tickets out of poverty. Their trainers collect their own seemingly exorbitant fees. As for the MLB teams, they have one objective only, and that is to get each young player for as little money as possible. And the battle begins, however, with one side clearly at a disadvantage, and I’m sure you can guess which side that is exactly.
You feel for the players specifically, because, no matter how mature, intelligent and wise beyond their years they may seem, the fact still remains that they really are just kids; and as you watch them, in certain moments, you see that they very much are.
That the minor league training grounds these players sign to initially are called “farm teams,” is telling. The entire system – from their days in the Dominican Republic as peloteros, to their eventual signings with MLB teams – could really be described as a kind of farming unit, as one of the key trainers featured in the documentary states early on, when talking about the kids that go through his program in the Dominican Republic: “it’s like when you go and harvest the land. You put the seed on the land, and then you put water in it, you clear it, you do all of this and then, when it grows, you sell it. It’s just the way it is.”
Each player is heavily scrutinized by the MLB before any signing happens, seemingly in order to avoid fraud – primarily as in players claiming to be younger than they are (in a game, just as in the wider society, the older you are, the less you’re valued), and player’s using drugs to amplify size and ability. But I use the word “seemingly” in reference to the MLB’s motivations in these fraud investigations because, as the film suggests, the MLB, its teams and reps, may also have found a way to further exploit these young players, by reducing their “value” via these investigations into each player (sometimes drawn out for months, and requiring all manner of tests to prove that a player is who they say they are; and even then, inconclusive rulings are made by the MLB), labeling each prospect as guilty until proven innocent, which obviously turns interested teams away from them, whether allegations are true or not.
July 2 is the preferred signing day, and the longer a player takes to be signed to a team, the less he’s valued. Whatever reputation he had up until that moment becomes tainted, whether the MLB investigations lead to any confirmations of fraud or not.
But there’s so much else going on behind the scenes, it appears, that we just aren’t privy to; like apparent collusion between the MLB, the teams, the scouts, all seemingly working together to ensure that a pelotero goes with the team that really wants him, and at bargain basement prices (especially when compared to their contemporaries in the USA who are signing for far more money). And the fact that the MLB refused to talk to the filmmakers for the film is somewhat telling, if not unhelpful in painting a complete picture of a form of entertainment that millions here in the USA spend billions on every year – in terms of salaries, ticket sales, merchandise, memorabilia, TV deals, endorsement contracts, etc.
And as the film shows, some peloteros do indeed engage in fraud, like lying about their ages; or maybe I should say that their parents lie about the ages of their sons. However, you can’t help but empathize with them, given the depressing situations many of them live in; they see an opportunity to move up on the socioeconomic ladder, and you really can’t blame them for wanting to do so. After all, fraud occurs on all levels – from those at the top who earn hundreds millions of dollars every year running corporations, to the poor family living in squalor who just want a leg up. So it’s hard to vilify these young players (specifically those who lie about their ages, or use ability-enhancing drugs, etc) and their families, because they are, we could argue, forced to play a game that every other competitor, at every level, is, with the difference being that they aren’t exactly in positions that give them the kind of leverage that their opponent (the MLB in this case) has. So they’re instantly at a disadvantage.
The scenarios presented in the film aren’t all that disimilar to those seen here in the USA, as young men go through a similar kind of farming system, starting our very young in high school, then onto college, and finally the draft where, at 18 to 21 years old, they are signing multi-million dollar contracts to go play in the NFL or the NBA. I immediately thought of New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden’s book, “$40 Million Slaves,” in which he looks at the African American athlete, from the plantation, to the history-making accomplishments of notable present-day figures, making the argument that the black athlete’s evolution “has merely been a journey from literal plantations – where sports were introduced as diversions to quell revolutionary stirrings – to today’s figurative ones, in the form of collegiate and professional sports programs.”
Despite the progress and their dominance, black athletes still find themselves on the periphery of true power in these multibillion-dollar industries where their talent is nurtured and exploited – for a healthy price of course.
I especially like the metaphor Rhoden uses of the “conveyor belt” that brings young black kids from inner cities and small towns to major sports programs, where they’re cut off from their roots and exploited by team owners, sports agents, and the media. I immediately think of a factory; and it’s really not all that different from what “Pelotero,” the film, exposes.
As directors Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jon Paley said in their statement when the film was released – July 13, 2012 – they discovered that what they thought would be a simple answer to the question that initially inspired their making the documentary (why are Dominicans so good at baseball?), the answer was far more complex; their time spent in the Dominican Republic making the film, revealed what they called a “highly nuanced system,” and not the romanticized images they initially had in their heads.
“The Dominican system is one of stark contradictions. It’s a system where integrity and corruption are interchangeable tactics in the pursuit of the country’s top players,” they said.
Indeed it is.
The film’s one noticeable “weakness” if I could even call it that, is the absence of the MLB’s voice in this conversation; but that wasn’t the fault of the filmmakers; as I already noted, the MLB refused to talk to them. So the audience is left to extrapolate based on available evidence.
But I was certainly engaged and enlightened about a major industry system that I hadn’t given the slightest thought to. At a scant 77 minutes, you won’t get an all-encompassing dissertation (especially without the MLB’s contribution), but you’ll get more than an introduction – one that will inspire lots of further thought and investigation.
“Ballplayer: Pelotero” is available in the USA on various home video platforms, so check it out.