Lessons from Hollywood

(I am severely late to the party, but I’m here to talk about a movie that made its debut on the festival circuit in 2008, and was released sometime last May in the United States. But on the heels of yesterday’s Oscar nominations, I’m hoping you can see some tangential timeliness, if only to point to its glaring omission from the Best Original Screenplay category. I also think SUGAR can provide real lessons that can help us in our goal from Friday: finding ways to improve the existing Minor League development process.)

“It’s the same game we played back home.” It is this question — not the assurance, as it’s spoken in the film — that concerns the baseball element in “Sugar”, a story about assimilation into the United States told by fimmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”). The title character is Miguel “Sugar” Santos (newcomer Algenis Perez Soto), a right-handed pitcher from San Pedro, Dominican Republic, signed for $15,000 to the Kansas City Knights. Santos takes quite a journey in the film, traveling from his home country to Phoenix for Spring Training, then to Bridgetown, Iowa for his first minor league assignment, and to New York for a taste of the America he has dreamt about.

This is the baseball journey that we know about told through a lens we have only imagined. Boden and Fleck are unwavering in their pursuit to tell the Dominican story of playing baseball in America, from the playgrounds in the Bronx to the organizational facilities in the Caribbean. Sugar is good; at 19, the film opens as he begins to harness the ability that led to his signing. But the Knights realize what a bargain he is when Sugar quickly picks up a knuckle-curve that a visiting scout teaches him. From there, it’s onto Phoenix, as Sugar and his curveball are invited to the Knights’ Spring Training camp.

From here, the film begins a series of narratives that deal with the difficulty of the language barrier. Sugar arrives in America with enough English to play baseball with: his English classes in the Dominican consisted of “flyball,” “home run,” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Anything outside of this, like ordering food at a restaurant or understanding his coaches and teammates, is out of his league. “Donde está I-A?” he asks his friends before a plane ride sends him to his professional debut in the Midwest League. Middle America is not the stuff of Dominican dreams.

There are three principal relationships that a Minor League player has, and Boden and Fleck have done their due diligence to pursue each struggle in communication: the host family, the coaching staff and teammates. We can tell that Sugar, like so many Latin minor leaguers, is very smart, because he picks up the language very well. But a perfect storm of events strike midseason, as they so often do, and it drastically changes Sugar’s worldview in Bridgetown. He injures his ankle tripping over the first base bag, just when his lone Dominican teammate is released as the result of bad performance. His other friend on the team, a second baseman from Stanford, is promoted, and suddenly Sugar feels alone. When he returns and the inevitable slump hits, Sugar’s frustrations are read as make-up problems by his equally frustrated coaches.

This, I think, is the first lesson that we can take from the movie. I’m reminded of Hanley Ramirez, who had numerous suspensions in the Boston Red Sox organization for mis-conduct. Ramirez would often get in arguments with coaches and trainers, and was even demoted from High-A to Rookie League as punishment. I should preface this example by saying that Hanley’s own lack of maturity and ego were the central role in these problems. But I also can see that at no level in the Boston organization did he have a Latin coach, and thus, I find his immediate success in Latin-friendly Miami as something less than coincidence. I can’t help wonder if part of his anger outbreaks coincided with language barrier frustrations.

The film further reveals itself when Sugar travels to New York to visit the departed Dominican third baseman. There, he sees the Yankee Stadium he dreamed about as a boy in San Pedro, and finds a Latin community in the Bronx. It presents, to me at least, an interesting dichotomy: the biggest cities in America are home to our largest fanbases, but also are in the most Latin-friendly towns in America. Many of the minor league cities that players are assigned to, with the intention of developing them into Major Leaguers, are in towns with nothing to offer Spanish speakers.

Critics have credited Boden and Fleck for a niche look at the American dream, but they have also accomplished something that revered sports movies like “The Blind Side” and “Invictus” (both Oscar-nominated films) failed at: they delivered a universal message without dumbing down the sport serving as metaphor. In fact, I think “Sugar” raises issues that we need to pursue that could shine light on the ideal development process of a Latin player. What teams are best at developing these players? What do they do differently? Do players succeed in towns more accessible to Spanish speakers?

Is it really the same game they play back home?




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25 Responses to “Lessons from Hollywood”

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  1. scott says:

    this is great. i saw the movie sometime in 2008 and loved it.

    sugar actually reminded me a lot of jose contreras; spurts of ability and lots of “orgazational disappointment.” made me think about how many of these players exist in every organization, at every level. kevin goldstein recently told me that probably 75% will never make as much money as they do from their initial signing bonus.

    the words aren’t really coming to me, but i think a lot of the issue is where the teams are. it’s impossible to send *every* latin american prospect that speaks little english to nyc, chicago, LA, miami, etc, but i think putting more minor league clubs in those areas could definitely help. chicago, for instance, has one mlb affiliated minor league team (kane county cougars, A’s), and even that is a 35+ minute drive from the city. the rest are at least 1.5+ hours away.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Right, or how about Brooklyn, which the Mets are affiliated with. What an opportunity for players there.

      I’m not suggesting we send every latin american prospect to a big city, so much as I’m suggesting that teams have their low minors squads in Latin-friendly towns. But there’s research to be done before I make any definitive opinion.

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      • Sandy Kazmir says:

        Wouldn’t it be easier to just hire a Spanish speaking coach that could act as a mentor/father figure for those fresh off the boat? Plenty of ex-ball players are Hispanic and could teach a thing or two about hitting or fielding a position. Not to get too general, but this seems like the spirit of the rule behind affirmative action. Nice read Bryan, this all but seals the deal that I need to view this sometime.

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      • Mofo says:

        Wouldn’t incorporating more English lessons be the easier solution? I mean, isn’t part of becoming a professional assimilating yourself into the culture of said profession? This just seems like enabling at its worst.

        And apologies if I sounded like Gerry Callahan just then.

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      • Bryan Smith says:

        Mofo: Certainly to your first question. I reference in the article the silliness that Sugar’s English lesson only consisted of basic baseball terms. My guess is that some teams do (or have) operated this way, and that some go above and beyond.

        But I hardly think it’s enabling to find a way for a business to improve upon itself. Are you not recognizing that Latin players have a more uphill climb than American players in assimilating into professional baseball? Yes, part of their duty is to work towards succeeding, but part of the onus has to fall on the organizations.

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      • scott says:

        @Sandy. Do these players want a mentor/father figure? As a 19-21 year old, would you want a father figure by your side?

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      • Sandy Kazmir says:

        It’s a valid question, Scott, one that I don’t have an answer for. I know that when I left home at 18 it was hard adapting to a completely different environment, and I spoke the language. My point was more of having someone to go to to ask advice, that grew up in the same culture as me, that had been through this same route to the Majors. It would seem that there would be an infinite (for all intents and purposes) supply of coaches, why not make it a point to have someone with a similar background to the commodity that organizations are trying to nurture from potential to impact?

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      • scott says:

        i agree that it would be very worthwhile to have someone like that. i guess i just see the words “father figure” and think of joe nossek (sp) and shadowing josh hamilton everywhere he went.

        there has to be some negative outcomes of a parentless, possibly-soon-to-be-rich, teenager going all frat guy freak out thinking he owns the show (hanley).

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  2. Brett says:

    As a filmmaker and a diehard baseball fan, I’m very interested in seeing this film. I get a feeling that I will walk away from it being very glad that I’m a Mariners fan.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Brett: Please elaborate on why you think you’ll be glad to be a M’s fan. I’m guessing you think they’ve done admirably in developing Latin players?

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  3. Jerry says:

    This is a great look at a fantastic film… Sugar is possibly the best baseball movie I have seen – primarily because it is not really a baseball movie. As you put it, the film “delivered a universal message without dumbing down the sport serving as metaphor.” Perfect.

    I’ve always been fascinated by the transitions that these players make – from playing with cardboard milk cartons for gloves to signing multi-million dollar contracts in a foreign country. And what’s always fascinated me more are the hundreds of players like Sugar on the fringes… I think this film does a great job telling the “untold story” of these players, and much could be learned from it regarding the development and support these players receive.

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  4. FireOmar says:

    What was Sugar’s WAR?

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  5. Eric says:

    Bryan Smith, I really love your work here at FanGraphs so far, such a talented writer.

    Seen the movie last year I think, was a great movie although I don’t remember too much from it =\.

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  6. CircleChange11 says:

    I saw ‘Sugar’ and it was okay … tough to tell if it’s a general representation of the Latin American’s experience in minor league baseball.

    From personal experience I have a few stories. Firstly, here’s my best friend from college …

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=gomez-001den

    He’s a RHP from Miami (Hialeah) that attended a small school in the middle of nowhere, Iowa via Miami Dade CC. I transferred to Aurora University in 94 and he was coming with me but it created a conflict between 2 schools in the same region, so it was blocked. I haven’t spoken to him for some time, and I was unaware he was playing Indy ball at 36.

    I also have heard some stories from Clay Zavada (who is not Hispanic, despite what the last name might lead one to assume), about Latin players in the minor leagues. Basically 2 things stick out from their experience …

    [1] They (Latin players) stick together in small groups (for obvious reasons) and never really “join the team” from a social standpoint. That might be a minor factor due to the cut-throat nature of MiLB (rooting against teammates so you can get more time).

    [2] Whenever players or teams throw away equipment, some of the Latin players would dig them out of the dumpster and either mail them back home or sell them back home. Here’s where you get the photos of a 10yo kid wearing size 11 baseball spikes and swinging a 33in bat. Gloves are a premium value item.

    Also, while the Latin players are also characterized as playing with milk cartons for gloves and a rolled up sock for a ball … I think that characterization is most often suited for very young players, as teenage players seem to be recruited for the “academies”, where better equipment is provided for them.

    I have some interest in the language issue as my (Spanish first language, proficient English) wife is currently earning her ESL teaching certificate. Immersion is still the fastest way to learn a language (at least conversationally), but I wonder how valuable it is for a team to invest a lot of time in language instruction given the short amount of time the player typically spends on a minor league team. A translator might make more sense, at least for the short term.

    Any player is going to struggle somewhat with culture shock and homesickness regardless of their original location. Someone going from a large city on either coast, living and playing in a small midwest town, as well as, someone raised in a small midwestern town moving to the south or either coast is also likely to experience the same culture shock and homesickness, even while speaking the native language. Bottom line is that players don’t seem to spend much time in any location. “Fitting in with the social scene” might be more of a distraction in some regards, than not fitting might. A lot depends on the makeup of the player.

    I had 3 teammates go pro as non-seniors, and they all wished they had returned to college because the adjustment to the “me first” baseball of MiLB was so drastic from the close-knit, living together like brothers, trying to win a title together situation of a college team. Based on everything I know, it take a talented, very mentally strong, person to make the major leagues … even moreso to stay there.

    For a lot of players, MiLB, and perhaps even MLB is the first time in their careers where they met real competition, struggled a bit, or have been told by coaches that they aren’t “sliced bread”. Lots of things to overcome on the way to the top. We always think of “playing baseball for a living” as some type of glamorous existence (it may be for the mega-talented), but for many it a tremendously stressful and draiing experience with always wondering if you’re an “0-fer” or “bad inning” from losing your job and/or being demoted/released. It doesn’t seem to be as fun as most think.

    For example,we got to drive Zavada to Kaufman Stadium for the game against the Royals (he was thrilled because he didn’t have to spend money on a cab), but he was sweating bullets the whole ride, worried that he would be one minute late and he would be sent down. Imagine dealing with that type of pressure (plus game pressure) each and every day? I’m not saying that we should feel sympathy for those that make it to professional baseball, only to understand the dog eat dog nature of the business. Once you “make it”, it’s likely a ton more fun than trying to get there. That part is probably obvious.

    Sorry for the length.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      This is a great comment. Thanks for some insight on your personal relationships with players that have dealt with this.

      “Any player is going to struggle somewhat with culture shock and homesickness regardless of their original location.”

      I agree with this, but I think what I’m saying is that we sometimes assume this is equal for every player, because we know everyone deals with it. I don’t think we give credit to the players that clearly have a steeper “culture shock” climb than others. I don’t know if we should or shouldn’t, but I want to ask the question.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        [1] I don’t think Latin American players get the same kind of coaching that American college players do (i.e.,coaches that will tell the player that they are doing something wrong, could get better, or need to work harder, or will sit them on the bench if they “don;t get with it”). There have been plenty of white kids that couldn’t handle Bobby Knight (as an extreme example).

        [2] I would imagine that Latin players and American high school (and travel ball) players get the same type of “coaching”, and that is “leave them the hell alone and let them showcase what they do, while the coach rides the talent to the title”. Travel ball likely just makes it worse, where if you piss off a player, he’ll play for the rival team soon enough. The players are more likely often persuaded to think they are better than they are, with the adult’s hopes of becoming their agent. “Tickling the ears” as it is sometimes called.

        They get to the minors, struggle, get yelled at, start doubting themselves, become disenfranchised, and well, appear to pout or sulk, even though they may be genuinely crushed or deflated. Throw in lonely and homesick and it compounds the issue. Experiencing this for the first time at age 19 (or so) has to be weird. Most college freshman have to fight for playing time or get “put in their place” during fall ball, so they already get exposed to “man up”.

        Another factor is Latin players are going from an area of small population to an area of a very large population where talent is plentiful. They are going from being the big fish in a small pond to an area where they’re just another fish, and often times not the biggest fish (the American college baseball stud is the big fish, often times).

        It’s a blow to many athletes who are used to being the best of the best perhaps starting as early as 7yo. Overcoming obstacles and struggling a bit (on the baseball field) is something entirely new and I don’t think teams get a good idea of how Latin and small HS or even small college players are going to deal with not being THE guy.

        Non-white cultures in America are often more emotional than are white people (duh). Showing emotion is the norm for them as adults, not something to “grow out of”. They are judged by “our culture”, and that’s not fair. Sometimes it seems Latin players are in a “no win” situation with us fans … they’re either too quiet (arrogant or bitter or selfish) or too talkative (childish, not serious, unprofessional), or too joyous (showboat, unsportsmanlike, etc), or they show their hurt feelings (pouting, crybaby, weak, etc).

        IMO, this is why many Latin players like to play winter ball. It’s all their culture, they get to “be themselves” without being judged by another culture’s norms, and just “have fun playing ball”. Well, that and no Latin batters take more than 10 walks over a short season so the games are action-packed (joke, somewhat).

        Different cultures have different cultural norms. Sometimes traditional Americans don’t always understand that or get why everyone doesn’t “act like us”.

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  7. Steve says:

    Read this article during the day… downloaded it and just finished watching it… Great movie… The granddaughter of the host family in from Iowa is HOT!!!

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  8. Nick says:

    Theo Epstein had a quote recently about Latin players in the minors and how often you see the “makeup” tag thrown onto them, and he was questioning how much it was the player’s responsibility or whether it was something that teams aren’t doing well enough in the assimilation process. Because it was Theo, I immediately thought of Michael Almanzar (though Hanley is another obivious example) and how his struggles last year after an impressive debut (and signing bonus) were almost immediately followed with “effort” and “attitude” questions.

    So I definitely think it’s something that franchises, particularly ones that are as active in the international market as Boston, are looking into in the hopes of learning more and eventually improving the process.

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    • scott says:

      the quientessential tags; white players are grindy (playing above their heads, due to being a “try-hard”), black players are raw/athletic (lots of “unrealized potential”), and latin players are lazy (unwilling to do the extra work; see carlos zambrano:abs).

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  9. Nick says:

    here’s the article and the quote:

    http://fullcount.weei.com/sports/boston/baseball/red-sox/2010/01/09/red-sox-mets-trend-setters-in-the-latin-american-market/

    Epstein identified the issue of “losing” the Latin American player early in his development, which strides such as the Dominican facility have worked to prevent.

    “If you took an equally talented 18-year-old who had graduated from an American high school and had been drafted, and [a similar] Dominican Republican signee [that] had the same tools, the same ability, the same type of makeup, and then put them in Rookie ball, and then expect them to go to advanced short-season ball the year after that, then Low A ball, and then High A ball the year after that, I think we found as an organization that we were losing the Latin American player, Epstein said. “It wouldn’t be an obvious thing. It wouldn’t be something that was patent, it was just that by the time they got to High A ball or Double A, the American player was thriving. In the Latin American player, we would start to see things in the scouting report, like, ‘Well, we’re just not sure how committed to the game he is,’ or, ‘We’re not sure what kind of baseball instincts this player has,’ or, ‘We don’t think this player takes coaching very well.’

    “When you start to see that pattern over and over and over again, you realize it’s complete inequity,” Epstein added. “It’s not fair, there’s something inherent in the process that we’re not doing to reach the Latin American player. We’re not providing him the same opportunity that we’re providing the American player. And so the problem is not with the makeup of the Latin American player; it’s the opposite. It’s that we’re not doing what we can to provide a level playing field. I think our challenge as an organization has been to level the playing field.”

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      This is, again, why Theo is one of the game’s best. I called the Red Sox out in this article, but I didn’t think twice about the fact that I’m sure they are thinking about this. This is a very honest admission by Theo, and hopefully we can look to their change in process as a way that every team can improve.

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