(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?