Rough in the Diamond

By Sailer, Steve | The American Conservative, April 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

Rough in the Diamond


Sailer, Steve, The American Conservative


"SUGAR" IS A CRITICALLY acclaimed indie film about a 20-year-old Dominican pitcher's minor league baseball season in Iowa. "Half Nelson," the last collaboration of its married auteurs, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, brought Ryan Gosling a Best Actor nomination as a caring white liberal teacher in a Brooklyn slum school attended by African-Americans and Dominicans. As numerous Dominican immigrants in New York City are failed minor leaguers, "Sugar" was a logical next film for the pair.

This movie is about a black Dominican, but it was very much made for white Americans. Indeed, "Sugar" exemplifies Sundance movies. It is so sensitive, subtle, soft-spoken, averse to crowd-pleasing gimmicks, and generally beholden to the Stuff White People Like rulebook that few ballplayers of any nationality would pay to see it. Dodger slugger Manny Ramirez would snore so loudly through it that the audience couldn't hear the soundtrack's climactic song: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" sung in Spanish.

Boden and Fleck wanted not a tale of triumph but a statistically representative illustration of the typical Dominican athlete's brief career. We see the young pitcher Sugar (portrayed by Algenis Perez Soto, an amateur second baseman who visibly can't throw his character's supposed 95 mph fastball) at the Kansas City organization's training academy in the baseball-mad small city of San Pedro de Macoris, birthplace of 73 major league players, including Sammy Sosa. We follow him to spring training in Phoenix, then to Single A ball in Iowa. There he's lonely because there are no Spanish-speaking girls to chat up. After an injury, he's demoted to the bullpen. His pride too wounded to return home, he quits the team and hops a bus to the South Bronx, where he pursues a career in illegal immigration.

Although most Dominicans, such as the American-born Alex Rodriguez, are some shade of beige, San Pedro ballplayers tend to be descended from black Jamaicans brought in to chop sugar cane. Last year, the 88 Dominicans made up almost 12 percent of major league rosters, despite the Dominican Republic having only 3 percent of America's population. The average major league salary is approaching $3 million, so Dominican big leaguers earn around a quarter of a billion dollars annually.

The young ballplayer claims he's nicknamed "Sugar" because he's "so sweet with the ladies," but Boden and Fleck want their film's title to convey that by signing so many Dominican teens, baseball teams are, like sugar companies, neocolonialist exploiters. …

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