For many aspiring baseball players in the Dominican Republic, the sport is often seen as the ticket out of poverty. Young men live and breathe the successes of players such as Pedro Martínez and Sammy Sosa, seeing them as testaments to the promise that baseball holds—the chance to shape a life different from the one they’ve known.
The baseball industry is important culturally, socially and economically to the island of the Dominican Republic. As of 2005, there were 30 baseball academies in the Dominican Republic sponsored by major league organizations. Most were located in predominantly poor communities. Their existence is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provides the young men of the area with an opportunity to do something. Many of these young men, however, choose to drop out of school to be able to train seriously.
With so much at stake, the chances for exploitation of the players are high. Common in the game are buscones, “agents” who promise to oversee the player’s career in exchange for a steep commission if the player is signed. In 2001, a buscón based in Santo Domingo charged a reported $150,000 of Yankee prospect Melky Cabrera’s $175,000 signing bonus.
Sugar, a film directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, directors of the film Half Nelson, skillfully explores this nuanced relationship that exists between the sport and the country. Initially, the film follows a somewhat expected trajectory. The main character, Sugar, played by Algenis Pérez Soto, is a star in his small hometown in the Dominican Republic. Against the backdrop of merengues, Presidente beers and games of Dominoes on the beach, Sugar learns how to throw a curve-ball and slowly speak English with the hopes of being recruited for spring training in the United States. Once recruited, he experiences the highs and lows of any sports-player and any immigrant, from the exhilaration of cheering fans and the tension that accompanies the arrival of a new, better-trained, fellow Dominican player, to the difficulty of getting accustomed to a foreign culture.
And yet the film goes beyond the integration and acculturation challenges that any newcomer faces. The movie asks the important question: What about the majority of the players who do not continue on to the major leagues?
Sugar recognizes the small window of opportunity that exists within the game. An injury means you are sent home—immediately. As team players get sent back and new players stream in, Sugar, after years of training at home, abandons the team, deciding to place his chances on making it in New York. There is no one waiting for him there, but he knows that it promises more options than returning home. Once in New York, Sugar’s story takes a familiar turn. Working as a dishwasher and carpenter, without much education, he begins to scrap together a life—one very far from the one he had imagined.
Luckily, Sugar’s experience need not be the experience of others. In the real world today, organizations such as The Dominican Republic Sports and Education Academy are stepping in to ensure that the young men recruited are not bound to the success or failure of their baseball careers. Both a college-preparatory and a baseball-training academy, it aims to give trainees the option of attending U.S. colleges and universities on athletic scholarships and to educate players on exactly what their options are within the industry, setting the tone for more realistic expectations and helping the players make smarter, more informed decisions.
Co-founder of the academy Charles S. Farrell, explains, “Most [players] rarely obtain even a high school degree. Players in the Dominican Republic can sign professional contracts at 16 ½, so education is usually bypassed in pursuit of the dream of success in baseball…[The academy] not only wants them to succeed in college, we want them to excel.”
This initiative, and ones like it, can do much to provide young players with more options—producing talented players who not only succeed in baseball, but succeed “off the playing fields.”