“If you were 12 and your parents told you you could either play baseball all day, every day, and maybe make millions of dollars, or go to school, what would you do?”
The question, from Trevor Martin, one of the directors of the new documentary “Ballplayer: Pelotero,”
isn’t necessarily rhetorical. That’s the choice presented to many preteens in the Dominican Republic, where Martin and co-directors Ross Finkel and Jonathan Paley spent nine months filming kids with dreams of playing in America’s big leagues. Major League Baseball, for its part, dreams of finding cheap, young talent. Cheaply.
Dominican kids can be offered professional contracts at age 16 (though few are). Players who aren’t signed by 17 are considered washed up and their market value drops precipitously, the movie suggests.
“MLB [says] it’s 16, and 16 it is,” Martin says. “When you offer big bonuses to a very small amount of kids who happen to play like professionals and have the bodies to play like grown men, it gives you a perverted reason to go to the normal kids who develop at a normal rate and say, ‘You weren’t ready at 16, so now you’re worth $10,000 instead of $2 million.’”
The film, opening locally Friday, follows two Dominican phenoms, Miguel Angel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista, who are at that crucial age — or are they? Because 16 is the magic number, the temptation to lie about a player’s age is strong, and accusations of fraud from MLB are not uncommon. When a player can’t prove he is who he says he is — which isn’t so easy in a country where public records can be sketchy — he’s slapped with a one-year ban on playing for MLB. So, his price drops. “It’s definitely a cynical business strategy,” Martin says.
The film emphasizes that Sano and Batista are each the best hope for their impoverished families, a situation that’s all too common in the Dominican Republic.
“We met kids down there whose parents encouraged them to drop out of school and play baseball. Their parents had a sit-down with them and said, ‘Well, son, you can either go to school and be a motorcycle taxi driver or cut cane, or you can play baseball and maybe win the lottery.’”West End Cinema, 2301 M St. NW; opens Fri., $8-$11; 202-419-3456. (Foggy Bottom)