'Sugar' a sweet look at Latinos in baseball
By Bruce Dancis
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
The presence of Latino baseball players in the major leagues is an old story. Latinos were playing professional baseball in the United States as early as the 1870s, though it wasn't until after the breakdown of segregation in the late 1940s that Major League teams began to sign black Latinos.
Since then, we've seen many Latino players acknowledged as being among the best in the game, from Puerto Rico's Robert Clemente — the first Latino superstar in the U.S. — to the Dominican Republic-born Albert Pujols, perhaps today's finest hitter.
Overall, Latinos now make up between 25 to 30 percent of present-day Major League rosters, and an even high proportion of Minor League players. And while the story of each of these players is unique, many have achieved rags-to-riches fame as they emerged from poverty-stricken upbringings in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, Cuba and other Latin American countries.
"Sugar," the excellent dramatic film about a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic, puts a new twist on this old story.
Co-written and co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who had previously made "Half Nelson" starring Ryan Gosling, "Sugar" has been released on DVD (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, rated PG-13). The film received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
While "Sugar" explores, with accuracy and insight, the recruitment and training of outstanding prospects in the Dominican Republic by Major League teams, it goes deeper. As Boden explains in "Making Sugar: Run the Bases," a DVD documentary, "Hundreds of young Dominican ballplayers go through this process every year. They never make it to the major leagues."
The focus of "Sugar" is on Miguel "Sugar" Santos (played by movie newcomer Algenis Perez Soto), a 19-year-old pitcher from Consuelo, a small town outside of San Pedro de Macoris, who has been signed to a professional contract by the fictional Kansas City Knights. His success in the Knights' baseball academy in the D.R. leads to an invitation to attend the ballclub's Minor League training camp in Arizona.
And from there he gets promoted to the Knights' A-division Minor League team in Bridgetown, Iowa.
"Sugar" richly details Miguel's experiences as an immigrant with little English in a strange land.
"Sugar's" authenticity is one of its main attractions. As the DVD documentaries "Making Sugar" and "Play Beisbol! The Dominican Dream" show, scenes were shot in the actual D.R. neighborhood where Miguel grew up and in the country's professional baseball academies. Former Major League pitcher Jose Rijo appears in the film and served as one of its creative consultants. And the actors who portray the Dominican prospects are all nonprofessional actors with the athletic aptitude and dramatic ability to make their characters utterly believable.
"Sugar" is that rare sports film that appeals to both baseball fans and those who don't know the difference between a slider and a knuckle curve (Miguel's best pitch).
Its perceptive look at an important aspect of the international business of baseball is compelling, and the film also succeeds as a dramatic study of modern immigration.