Life gives you lots of opportunities. Baseball only gives you one.
Sugar is the story of Miguel ‘Azucar’ Santos, a Dominican pitching prospect trying to work his way from the baseball academies of the DR to the major league promised land.
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck,the first act of Sugar reveals what life is like within the DR’s prospect machine; doing so three years before Pelotero came along to give the subject the documentary treatment. [I wrote up the documentary yesterday.]
I watched Pelotero for the first time the day before rewatching Sugar, which added considerable depth to my second viewing. The film was great on its own, but the new layers of understanding were significant.
While there were some liberties taken in service to the story, Boden and Fleck clearly did their research about life for young ballplayers in the Dominican Republic. There are scenes that are shot for shot precursors of what would later be shown in the documentary — even though the productions were entirely independent of one another.
After the first act of the film in the DR, the remainder reveals what life is like for a latino prospect once he graduates from the baseball academies to minor league ball in the US.
I can’t actually go into anymore detail without spoiling some powerful beats in the narrative, but what I will say is that this one is well worth a watch. Sugar is a beautifully crafted film that joins the ranks of movies on this list you should watch even if you aren’t a baseball fan. Although, let’s be honest, I don’t see how someone who isn’t a baseball fan could possibly still be reading these posts.
My second viewing of Sugar leaves me feeling much the same way I did after watching Pelotero. Baseball is a beautiful game, but the economics at the professional level too often reflect the monstrous injustices that color every facet of human life.
Up Next:Fear Strikes Out, the true story of Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall and his battle with mental illness. The film stars Psycho‘s Anthony Perkins.
The Gringos may have invented baseball, but we’re better at playing it.
One of every five MLB-affiliated players, including the minor leagues, is from the Dominican Republic. Let that sink in for a second. A country with a population of just over 10 million accounts for 25% of all ballplayers in the most competitive baseball league in the world.
This insanely disproportionate number is the result of a remarkable hotbed of talent, combined with a ruthlessly efficient system created to churn out the best players for a fraction of what their market value will be stateside.
At the bottom of the system are the young players themselves.
Next are the mentors/coaches who develop the kids. They are independent contractors who train players to prepare them for MLB appraisal. These mentors work for free, and pay for equipment, travel, and other expenses, all in the hopes of a receiving a commission once a player secures a major league signing bonus. If a player doesn’t get signed, the mentor gets no return at all. Most of these men live in poverty alongside the players they’re coaching.
Next up are MLB scouts. They work for individual teams, following players closely. Their recommendations determine which players clubs offer signing bonuses, as well as where those bonuses max out.
Then, at the top, are the MLB general managers and owners. At the time this documentary was filmed, in 2010, teams competed with each other by offering large bonuses in the hopes of recruiting the best players into their minor league systems. This has since been amended. An entry draft was created for Latin American players, removing the remaining leverage from the teenagers at the bottom of the pyramid.
Pelotero is a documentary following two players, as each works to lift his family out of extreme poverty by securing a big payday from an MLB club. There’s human drama, intrigue, deceit, MLB fuckery, and some remarkable baseball along the way.
To be honest, the primary thing I come away with after watching this beautifully crafted documentary is how disgusting the wealth gap between the DR and the US is.
With millions to throw around for bonuses, the MLB could easily afford to change the lives of the a huge percentage of people in Dominican Republic. They could lift families out of poverty, pay the mentors an appropriate salary commensurate to what scouts and other player development staff get paid, and work with players from a young age to teach them to play the game. And they could do this while offering schooling, to prepare the vast majority of kids who never play pro ball for life on the other side. They could do all of that without breaking a sweat. Instead, they are constantly doing whatever they can to spend as little as possible, including some obvious collusion to make sure bonus amounts never get out of control.
If we suddenly discovered a disproportionate population of wildly talented young baseball players in North Carolina — a state with a population roughly the same size as the Dominican Republic — there would immediately be league sponsored youth academies. They would be training kids to play ball in the highest quality facilities money can buy. There would be tutors, scholarships for families who couldn’t afford equipment or travel costs, and whatever other amenities needed to help churn out as many big league prospects as possible. In the DR, people living in extreme poverty are left to fend for themselves, hoping for a winning lottery ticket. Anyone who comes close and fails, including the mentors, are left with nothing.
The world is fucked up, and entirely upside down.
Up Next: Things stay on a similar note with Sugar, a 2008 film following the journey of a young pitching prospect as he attempts to make it to the big leagues. And yes, the main character is from the Dominican Republic
The boys are all here for ya, we’ll back you up, we’ll be there. ‘Cause, Billy, we don’t stink right now. We’re the best team in baseball, right now, right this minute, because of you. You’re the reason. We’re not gonna screw that up, we’re gonna be awesome for you right now. Just throw.
Disclaimer for family members who love this movie: I didn’t really like it, so you probably want to skip this one. Just a heads up.
For the Love of the Game is the first, and least, of Kevin Costner’s three appearances this month.
I’d never actually seen it before. A number of people hounded me to watch it over the years, but I never got around to it. I didn’t exactly think I’d hate it, I just had a feeling I’d be indifferent to it. I was right.
It’s an ok baseball movie, combined with a boring, mostly nonsensical love story. I don’t feel like the emotional beats are earned, and the character motivations often don’t make any sense to me. The flashbacks feel like standalone moments in a vacuum, as in I never felt like these characters were in a relationship going on outside of the memories Chapel revisits throughout the game. Each interaction is just moving the relationship into a territory convenient for the film’s narrative, not in a direction it makes sense for it to go.
The baseball is fairly decent, as Billy Chapel attempts to pitch a perfect game in the final game of his career. The only problem is that the baseball quirks and in-jokes — which are few and far between — are so memorably handled more successfully in other, superior films.
Still, with a little bit more depth to the love story, or if we got flashbacks with more resonance from other points in his life, I would have liked the film quite a bit more.
Also, can we talk about the end? It’s totally shitty that Chapel never actually has to accommodate the needs of his partner in any way. He’s supposedly matured by the end of the film, but the relationship still never costs him anything the way it’s cost her. He finishes his playing career on his terms, pitches a perfect game, leaves literally everything he has left in his arm on the field, then walks away. It’s only then, with baseball no longer an option, that he’s suddenly ready to follow Jane to London and let her needs impact the relationship. She still just gets the leftovers. That sucks.
Up Next: Pelotero, a documentary about two ballplayers in the Domincan Republic hoping to get signed by a Major League Baseball team.
There are two ways a disease winds up named after you. There’s the good way: you’re a doctor, scientist, or researcher. Then, there’s the other way: your vocation is literally anything else. Lou Gehrig was a baseball player.
He’s one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, and yet his name is best known as the common parlance for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Needless to say, Gehrig’s story was of the tragic variety.
The Pride of the Yankees is the 1942 Gary Cooper-led homage to Gehrig’s story. Ostensibly a biopic, but with artistic license somewhere in the 75% range.
Some parts of the film really work. Gehrig’s relationship with his wife Eleanor late in the film is moving. He’s pretending he’s not dying, she’s pretending she doesn’t know, and it’s emotionally resonant — albeit in a melodramatic 1940s sort of way. And the final shot, following Gehrig as he slowly walks off the field, through the dugout, and disappears through a dark doorway is beautiful.
But for me — and this is probably sacrilege in my family — the majority of the film oscillates between silly and aggravating.
For one, Cooper joins Robert Redford in the annals of men over 40 who some-crazy-how played an 18-year-old unironically. And let me tell you, folks, the de-aging software in 1942 was not as good as what filmmakers are working with today. Even crazier is that not only was a 41-year-old Cooper too old to play a young Lou Gehrig in early scenes, he was also four years older than Gehrig was when he died. And while actors today often look 10, or even 20, years younger than their actual age, Cooper was an old 41.
The film is also an exception to the rule that the Hollywood star playing an actual person is more attractive than their real life counterpart. Gehrig is definitely more attractive than Cooper.Don’t @ me, it’s just true. And seriously, tell me the man on the right looks 41 to you. You can’t, because he looks like he’s Lou Gehrig’s dad.
Then, there was the artistic license in the film. I’m fine with artistic license in many cases, especially in sports films based on real events. We expect thrilling, inspiring moments at the end of a sports movie. That usually means playing a little fast and loose with the facts. The stakes at the end of Rudy are far higher than they were in Daniel Ruettiger’s final game irl. The year TC Williams High School integrated, their final game was a blowout. Yet, in Remember the Titans, the game was a dramatic affair that included Coach Boone walking onto the field to force corrupt referees to start calling a fair game.
What confuses me about the artistic license in The Pride of the Yankees is that it diminishes the power of the story. The writers didn’t merely polish up Gehrig’s life up for public consumption, or add drama, they undercut it significantly.
It happens plenty throughout the course of the film, but I won’t detail all the changes. I will simply point out the single most egregious example: Gehrig’s final speech at Yankee Stadium.
The most famous line is the same. Gehrig stands before 61,000 fans, all of them there to celebrate the man and his career. Everyone in attendance is aware of why Gehrig must retire; his body is betraying him and he’s physically incapable of continuing to play the game. With that hanging in the air, he earnestly says to the crowd, “Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
That part is uttered word for word in The Pride of the Yankees, but it’s at an entirely different part of the speech. In the movie, he says it at the end of the speech, and in most films I’d understand the change. They moved the line to the end so it would be the climax of a powerful moment. However, in this case, it was a bad call. In Gehrig’s actual speech the ‘luckiest man’ bit is how he opens his emotional remarks to the crowd. As the first line in the speech, it carries much more power.
And it wasn’t just that, all of the changes to the speech were bad calls. One example was their change of Gehrig’s comments about his wife. In real life he said he had “a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know.” In the film he simply called her “a companion for life.” Gross.
Gehrig’s conclusion was more powerful as well. With ‘the luckiest man’ line as the opener, he goes on to list reasons he’s grateful in spite of the heartbreaking development in his life. Then he closes with, “I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.” He died two years later, at 37 years old.
It’s a powerful speech in context, which is why the changes are so frustrating. It’s not because it got the Hollywood treatment that rounded off the edges and polished it up. It wasn’t because they needed professional writers to make Gehrig’s comments more articulate. Gehrig’s was a better speech. The film version is the bad writing in this case. They ruined a speech that was already well formed and accessible, which didn’t need any edits to begin with. Maybe a few sentences could have been omitted altogether, but none of the portions you kept needed to be punched up or revised. It sucks.
Okay, rant over. On to more baseball movies.
Next Up: For the Love of the Game, the first (and least) of three Kevin Costner appearances.
Since he was a little boy, all he’s ever known is throwing a baseball. I don’t think he wants to give that up. And I think that it’s hard for him to imagine what his life would be like after that, if he didn’t have that.
Late Life is a documentary about Chien-Ming Wang, a Taiwanese-born former Yankee who had a remarkably promising career derailed by injuries.
I still remember hearing the bad news in June of 2008. Wang was helped off the field in the 6th inning, unable to put weight on his right foot. In moments like that, I’m the sort of fan who immediately believes the worst-case scenario is inevitable. And yet, as pessimistic as my fandom can be, I never could have anticipated how bad things would get for the man affectionately referred to as the ‘Pride of Taiwan.’
His initial injury happened during interleague play, against an Astros squad that still played in the National League at the time. Wang ended up on the basepaths in the 6th inning, something pitchers in the American League don’t practice. Rounding third on a single by Derek Jeter, he felt a pop in his right foot, followed by the pain and warmth often associated with a ligament injury. He’d torn apart the inside of his foot, and would go on to miss the rest of the season.
Upon his return in 2009, the injury caused a change in his mechanics, and a problematic compensation in his delivery, shifting undue strain to other joints and muscles. The result was immediate ineffectiveness. After that came a long list of subsequent injuries — including those to his hips and his bicep — culminating in a massive shoulder injury.
He was never the same pitcher again.
In New York, every Yankee fan could foresee the glory ahead of him. He was going to anchor the Yankees rotation for the next decade, his devastating sinker inducing ground ball after ground ball. When it was on, his sinker was like Mariano’s cutter. Hitters knew it was coming, yet were still powerless against it. It was as if the baseball was made of lead when it left his hand. We all believed the Yankees would sign CC Sabathia in the offseason, and the one-two punch of Sabathia and Wang would be a huge step toward building another dynasty in the Bronx.
Back home, 23 million people obsessed over his every pitch, as their native son achieved international success. He was Taiwan’s biggest celebrity.
You could feel it. Wang’s destiny was assured. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.
The same pitcher who won 19 games in back to back seasons, and finished second in AL Cy Young voting in 2006, now found himself relegated to the fringes of the MLB. Eventually, he wound up on an unaffiliated independent team, unable to find a single MLB team willing to offer him a minor league contract.
This is where Late Life picks up his story, following him as he tries to get back to the big leagues one more time. That’s a tall order for a man in his late 30s, an age when most players have accepted retirement, and the rest know it’s just outside the door.
The film follows Wang’s struggle to steal back his career from the jaws of time.
His stubborn persistence is inspiring. He refused to give in, in spite of all that his injury had taken from him; even in the face of the all but certain reality that his career was over.
Seeing a man who seemed destined for greatness brought low, a man who inspires love and devotion from everyone he comes in contact with, broke my heart.
And it is gut-wrenching to see the pain his family experiences as a result of his prolonged time away as he fights for his dream. It’s hard to watch his eldest son, who worships him, say goodbye again and again.
Yet, through it all, Wang fought on.
We only get one life. There are no do-overs. We don’t get to restart from a previous save. To see the promise of a young Chien-Ming Wang stolen by such an arbitrary event hammers home the transience of everything we know. Our lives rarely turn out the way we’d hoped. Wang’s certainly didn’t.
The only thing we can control is how we will respond when things go wrong. For Wang, as the onslaught of time was drawing his life as a pitcher to a definitive end, he persisted. He fought tooth and nail for every inch he could reclaim of his lost destiny.
I hope, when I inevitably face similar odds in the future, that I will do the same.
Next up:Pride of the Yankees: the 1942, Gary Cooper-led homage to the life and career of Lou Gehrig.
We’ll start with something easy, like batting averages. See, you take the number of times a man been at bat, and you divide that by the number of times a man got a hit. Like me, I been at bat a hundred times, I got twenty-five hits. That’s simple, right? Twenty-five go into a hundred four times. Gives me a batting average of four… that’s wrong. That ain’t no way to do that. What you gotta do is the number of times a man’s been at bat and got a hit. Divide that by the number of times he swung. See I been at bat a lot, and I swung a lot! Let me see, seventy-five into a hundred… no, that would give me a batting average of two. Couldn’t have a batting average of two! Nobody could have a batting average that bad. Could they?
The Bingo LongTravelling All-Stars and Motor Kings is a comedy about a Negro league star who’s grown tired of the evil, greedy owner of the team he plays for. He decides to recruit the best players from all over the league to start their own barnstorming team, which they will own and control equally amongst themselves. Thus begins a struggle to stay afloat while the team owners in the organized league attempt to sabotage them at every turn.
For the most part, the film is a mid-range 70s comedy. Though, it does have a lot going for it. When you’ve got the charm and charisma of Billy Dee Williams, the inimitable James Earl Jones in his first ever baseball-related role (his second of the three appearances he’ll make in this series), and some great punchlines (including the Richard Pryor quote at the top of this post), my friends, you’ve got a stew goin’.
But more fascinating to me was the timing of the film. Bingo Long came out in 1976, which incidentally was the year the MLB free agency was born. So, here’s a story about a player taking charge of his own career after growing tired of greedy ownership exploiting the athletes who actually fill the seats, released just as the same development was taking place in organized baseball. Based on film production timelines, there is no way this was planned in advance. It’s just one of those happy accidents that’s fascinating to look at in hindsight. Quite clearly, this topic was in the ether of late 70s culture.
Next Up:Late Life: The Story of Chien-Ming Wang, a documentary following Wang — a Taiwanese-born former Yankee who had a remarkably promising career derailed by injuries — as he attempts to make it back to the majors one last time.
Have you noticed whenever we’re around baseball all we talk about is pussy. Now, we’re actually around a few potentially interesting young women, and all you talk about is baseball. It’s a little fucked up!
Anyone I’ve talked to about Everybody Wants Some!! has never heard of it. That’s a goddamned crime, especially for the poor baseball fans who’ve been living without it since its release in 2016.
The film is Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused. I get it, ‘spiritual sequel’ is an overused phrase, but, you know, if it walks like a duck and whatnot. [There you go, two overused phrases back to back. You’re welcome.]
As we all know, Dazed and Confused is a slice of life comedy about the last day before summer at an Austin high school in 1976. In much the same style, Everybody Wants Some!! follows Jake, a freshman pitcher, as he arrives to college in 1980, and has one crazy weekend before classes start.
As far as baseball movies go, there isn’t much actual baseball to speak of. The team’s first practice of the season is all the on-the-field action we get. It’s brief, but also satisfyingly real. Some of these actors are seriously competent ballplayers; as in, this baseball is as believable as any I’ve ever seen in a film. Oh yeah, and there’s a scene where a dude uses an axe as a bat and cleanly chops pitched baseballs in half. It’s insane.
Yet, while the film doesn’t spend long on the ballfield, this is absolutely a baseball movie. It’s simply less concerned with life on the field, and more with diving into the bizarre ecosystem and community at the core of a baseball team. Guys whose lives revolve around playing a game at an elite level are going to be a little — or a lot — different in the head. When that gets concentrated by the fact that college players all live together, things are gonna get weird.
This is the sort of film that is destined for a cult following. It’s fun, breezy, and full of hilarious and lovable characters who deliver a multitude of quotable lines. It’s a really good time watching these knuckleheads have a really good time, and their joy is infectious.
The story of an elite college baseball team could have been told in so many ways. It could easily work as a lionization of baseball and its players; or as a dark rumination on the obsession required to be among the best athletes in the world; or as an exposé about the economic injustices of college athletics. Instead, in the hands of Richard Linklater, the movie is a good-natured look at the reality that, for the most part, baseball players are weirdos.
I highly recommend this gem that has gotten far too little attention.
Next up:The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, a comedy about a group of Negro league stars who grow tired of greedy league owners and start their own team.
There is no reasonable argument claiming that The Natural isn’t one of the two or three most significant baseball movies of all time. The face of Roy Hobbs is definitively enshrined on the Mount Rushmore of baseball heroes in film. You can dislike The Natural — and make a number of solid arguments as to why — but there is simply no denying its place in baseball cinema.
I’d go further and argue there is no more definitive moment in baseball movie history than Hobbs’s game-winning home run at the climax of the film. It’s silly, and amazing, and over the top, and laid on oh, so thick:
The son he didn’t know he had watches from the stands, with the woman who represents the part of himself he’s lost, but might still be able to return to. Wonderboy breaks, to illustrate that the idea of himself that he’d clung to since he was a child has shattered. The batboy brings him the Savoy Special, the bat they made together, reminding us that when baseball is gone, the true soul of Roy Hobbs is generous and kind. It’s the way forward into his new life, and it gives us a glimpse of the sort of father he will be. He’s bleeding through his uniform, because his old wounds won’t heal. They’ve reopened as he makes the same old mistakes; he’s refused to see what truly lies behind the seduction of fame and glory, and it’s killing him. He finally sees clearly. And then Roy Hobbs grits his teeth, swings through the pain, and crushes an epic home run that doesn’t just hit one set of lights, but somehow causes a chain reaction; every light in the ballpark erupts in a glorious explosion of sparks. His legend is solidified with one more remarkable moment that quite literally turns off the lights on his career. [[Seriously, though, that ballpark definitely needs to find a better electrician!]]
The scene is ridiculous, melodramatic, and way too on the nose. It’s also absolutely wonderful. It’s par for the course in The Natural, which is basically all the over-the-top, rose-colored, romantic ideals about the game projected onto the silver screen. Without any nuance, it makes clear its belief that baseball is a beautiful thing that must be defended from the greed and obsession with power that threatens to corrupt and destroy the game.
The film wasn’t made by idiots who didn’t know what they were doing. To personify for moment, the movie knows what it is and leans all the way in. This is evidenced in the comic timing of the reveal that Bump Bailey has died — which is fucking amazing, by the way. The guy ran through a wall after a fly ball — smash cut to a headline that he’s dead. A ten second memorial at the start of a game, and that’s it. No fanfare or no narrative timeout. The players and coaching staff collectively shrugs their shoulders. Our most talented player just died, Roy, you’re in right field!
I’m telling you, there’s a reason so many fans have seen this movie two dozen times.
Also, can we please talk about a 48-year-old Robert Redford playing an 18-year-old baseball phenom early in the film?! Classic.
Crazy fact I learned while writing this: the original novel was inspired by a real event, in which a deranged fan who believed she was in love with a ballplayer — she set a place for him at the dinner table every night and made her bedroom a shrine — invited him up to her hotel room and shot him in the chest with a rifle! He survived, and instead of leaving baseball for fifteen years like Roy Hobbs, he was back the next season. [via NPR]
Next up: The Linklater gem that far too few people have heard of, Everybody Wants Some!!
Let’s go steal some of your dead girlfriend’s blankets.
The Battery is a zombie movie from 2012 about two lone baseball players trying to survive the apocalypse.
In baseball parlance, a battery refers to the pitcher/catcher duo working in a game. In this case, instead of trying to survive the heart of a lineup without giving up a run, they’re trying to survive the end of the world without dying.
It’s really impressive what writer-director-star Jeremy Gardner was able to do with a $6000 budget. Yes, you read that correctly, they made this movie for $6000!
I didn’t love the movie, but there’s plenty to appreciate — especially as it’s the product of such a small production. Gardner gave a solid performance as Ben, the catcher. He’s the guy who actually got his hands dirty and kept them alive, but he’d definitely gone a bit insane by the time the film’s narrative begins. Gardner’s performance carried the moments that landed with me. But his directorial style was the highlight of the film. It didn’t always work, but when it did it, it did to great effect. He used long takes of the two leads, shot with a fixed camera. It captured them doing normal shit or sitting around in silence. It reminded me just how fucking boring the zombie apocalypse would be — in-between zombie attacks of course. It’d be like Covid-19 times a billion. You’re not stuck at home video-chatting with your friends, because they’re all dead. Not to mention the fact that there’d be no internet or cell phones.
Is The Battery going to be added to my film canon to watch over and over? No. But I’m still glad to have checked it out. And I wouldn’t have known it existed without the research I did for this series.
Up next: Speaking of the baseball film canon, next up is The Natural. It’s available on Netflix.
“One long ball hitter, that’s what we need! I’d sell my soul for one long ball hitter.”
Damn Yankees is a 1958 musical about a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who makes a deal with the devil in order to become a 22-year-old power hitter; making a Faustian bargain to help the basement-dwelling team he loves win the pennant.
I like a good musical, but I could take or leave Damn Yankees.
I mean, it wasn’t without its moments. Most notably, “Who’s Got the Pain” was the first onscreen pairing of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon (they met on preproduction of the Broadway version — Fosse choreographed — which led to their epic and troubled collaboration and marriage). Verdon’s performance with Fosse is great, but the Verdon-led dance number for “Two Lost Souls” is easily my favorite part of the movie.
Culturally, its biggest lasting impact is the song, “Whatever Lola Wants,” and to a much lesser degree, “You’ve Gotta Have Heart.”
One thing I learned working on this post is that there was a Broadway revival in 2008 starring 30 Rock‘s Jane Krakowski (Jenna) and Cheyenne Jackson (Danny) as Lola and Joe. I wish I’d seen their performances — especially because, unlike Tab Hunter, Jackson is a broadway star who can actually sing and dance.
Next Up:The Battery, a zombie movie about a former pitcher and catcher trying to survive after the apocalypse. It’s available on Prime Video if you want to join in.