Baseball’s “Puppy Mill”?: ‘Pelotero’ and the Dominican Connection
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Sports films are a staple within American culture. From the Hollywood imagination to documentaries, there has been a longstanding interest in sporting cultures. Offering a window into fundamental American tropes and ideologies – meritocracy; bootstraps; rages to riches; the American Dream – sports films fill the insatiable desire for stories of perseverance, redemption, and possibility. Pelotero, a new documentary narrated by John Leguizamo, enters into this larger cultural landscape, highlighting the dreams and nightmares of global baseball.
Pelotero sets out to answer a simple yet immensely complex question: how can a country the size of the Dominican Republic, with only 2% of the population of the United States, produce so many professional baseball players? In 2010, 86 of MLB’s 833 players come from the Dominican Republic; almost 25% of the 7,000 minor league players hailed from this nation of 9.7 million people. The film’s directors, Ross Finkel, Jon Paley, and Trevor Martin describe their goal as follows:
The central question behind Pelotero was a simple one: Why are Dominicans so good at baseball? The tiny island nation is consistently overrepresented in the Major Leagues, and as America’s pastime continues to globalize, every year brings a fresh crop of young Dominican Peloteros to the top levels of the game. We had a romantic image of these players’ humble beginnings etched in our minds; poor kids chasing rolled up socks through dusty streets as motorbikes whizzed by. However, that vision of street ball felt disconnected to another romantic idea of Dominican baseball; Big Papi, Sammy Sosa, or Robinson Cano slowly trotting around the bases under the bright lights and cheering fans of a big league ballpark. How does one lead to the other? And what is the story in between the two?
Eschewing cultural arguments, those that emphasize role models and “the single-minded pursuit of baseball” and theories that harken Social Darwinism, Pelotero highlights the social, political and economic contexts that funnel Dominican youth into the professional ranks.
With only two offices throughout the world, one in New York City and the other in Dominican Republic, it is clear that Major League Baseball has focused its efforts on developing future players. The desperation and poverty facing those in the Dominican Republic and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America has produced conditions ripe for American corporations taking advantage of this potential labor force, ultimately exploiting workers (players) inside and outside the United States. The establishment of “schools” – baseball’s sweatshops that produce its raw materials – has exacerbated this process.
Beyond filling the League with talented ball players, Major League Baseball teams use the “third world” because the “raw materials” (the players) are cheap. Dick Balderson, a vice-president of the Colorado Rockies, called this process a “boatload mentality.” The idea behind this approach is to sign a “boatload” of Latin players for less money, knowing that if only a couple make it to the big leagues, teams will still profit from the relationship. “Instead of signing four [American] guys at $25,000 each, you sign 20 [Dominican] guys for $5,000 each.” The desperation and poverty facing those in Latin America is facilitating this “single-minded” pursuit of sports, creating a situation where professional baseball teams are able exploit this labor force.
Charles S. Farrell, who is the former director of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Sports, described the dangerous predicament facing youth in the Dominican Republic:
Baseball is mainly the sport of the poor in the Dominican Republic, and viewed by so many as a way to escape poverty. Mothers and fathers put a glove on boys as soon as they can walk in order to pursue the dream of la vida buena.
But with every dream there are dream merchants, those who promise to pave a path to glory and riches for a price. The buscónes, as they are known, latch onto prospects at an early age, giving them advice and consul on how best to pursue the dream. Some are genuine in their mission; others simply hook into a potential meal ticket. Either way, good or bad, the buscónes have become a part of the Dominican baseball scene.
Pelotero highlights the consequences of the overdevelopment of the institutions of baseball alongside the underdevelopment of society at large (thanks in part to the polices of the IMF and World Bank). It elucidates how everyone from scouts to the teams themselves take advantage of the limited economic opportunities, the manipulated (unfree) marketplace, and the imported American Dream to get young 13 and 14 year olds to work hard so that maybe their parents can have a better life. Reduced to commodity, the efforts to sell a dream, a future, and most powerfully freedom/independence (signing day is July 2) to the players and their families are crucial in maintaining this exploitative system. One respondent in the film describes the ways that baseball views these young men: “It’s like when you harvest the land, you put seed on the land, you water it, you clear, and then when it grows, you sell it.”