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