The first rule of comedy may indeed be timing, but it's also the first rule of movie reviews. Therefore, I know this review of "Sugar" is about as well-timed as Israel's announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem a month ago. So why write about it?
The movie, recommended to me by dozens over the past year, is a wonderful glimpse into the world of the Dominican baseball immigrant. This is a large part of the minor league saga, and its intricacies have too often been ignored. I should've watched the movie--and written about it--long ago. Better late then never.
Sugar, the name of the main character, is a teenager from the Dominican who gains the opportunity to play in the States for the first time. Not only his family but his entire neighborhood brims with pride for him.
This is one of the interesting aspects of the movie. For many Latino peloteros, simply making it to the U.S. is a huge achievement. This country is seen as a type of dream world to them. New cars, fancy malls, huge houses, and gigantic stadiums pervade their thoughts.
Many ballplayers have never travelled outside of the Dominican before their arrival here. Some have hardly removed themselves from their own neighborhoods. The States might as well be on another planet for them. Being given a lump sum of money and told that you are getting on a plane and arriving to this fancy dream world, with your whole neighborhood bursting with pride, must be an amazing feeling.
Sugar leaves the Dominican and arrives to the U.S. early in the movie (probably a little too quickly to be realistic). We see him and his other fellow new-to-the-States friends in a hotel room. They open up the little hotel refrigerator and find beer in it. They all agree that they have indeed reached the big time, and immediately start drinking the beer and watching hotel porn on the TV. A minor league veteran comes in and has to educate them, telling them they have to pay for all of this.
The minor league veteran is a crucial piece of this story. He's played in the States presumably for a couple of years and knows the long road ahead for these young men. He also knows their innocent excitement.
One of my best Latino friends, Osiris Matos, told me a story about his first day in Arizona. (An important part of this story involves Matos' first name, which is phonetically pronounced O-Serious.) The Giants' minor league hotel is a crappy old Days Inn, but it lies directly beside the Fashion Square Mall in Scottsdale, which is one of the nicest malls I've ever been in. One of the favorite pastimes of minor leaguers is to go to the mall, grab a bite to eat, and then sit for hours beside the main escalators in the building. It offers a great view of all the beautiful women shopping.
As soon as Osiris arrived, he and his newfound friends went to the mall to do just this. They got some Chinese food from Panda Express, and then began yelling at girls as they came off the escalator. Most ignored them. Being good hunting dogs though, they persevered. Finally--Success!--girls came their way.
One of the players knew just a bit more English than the others. He tried talking to the girls, and cut straight to the most important information:
"We baseball players."
Apparently somehow this little incomplete, grammatically atrocious sentence impressed our young ladies. They reacted as so:
"Are you serious!!!"
At this time, young Osiris Matos, stood up:
"Yes! You know me!!!"
Matos, thinking they said his name when they asked "are you serious" because it sounded like his name, thought that he was a big enough prospect that these random girls already knew who he was. Indeed, he thought he had arrived.
Every Dominican no doubt has a similar feeling upon arrival to the States. They feel on top of the world. It is usually short-lived. In our movie, Sugar quickly finds out how far he has to go. There are more talented players than he's ever seen in spring training camp.
Out of camp, Sugar is assigned to a small Midwestern town. This assignment is one of the real inaccuracies of the movie. The movie accelerates Sugar's career WAY too quickly. I can't think of a single Dominican I ever knew who went from being signed, then to spring training, then to an assignment to a full-season team within a month. Almost always, the newly signed players spend some time in the Dominican Summer League. If they do come to the U.S. immediately, the will spend at least a summer, maybe two or even three, at the spring training complex for extended spring training. It allows them time to assimilate to the culture, learn a little English, and learn a little more baseball. All of this comes in a friendlier environment devoid of many fans. It's also full of more Latinos. For the purposes of the film though, all of this was skipped.
Sugar arrives to the small town and shacks up with a host family. Their old country house is surrounded by corn fields, which contrast greatly with earlier scenes from the Dominican. He looks out his window with heartache. He's never comfortable in this house.
If awards were given out to the nicest people in the world, most host families would be nominated. But indeed, some players never really feel comfortable there. They don't like opening the refrigerator whenever they like. They don't always like sitting down at the dinner table with them. They don't like talking with them after every game.
This is not a general rule for all players, but it is true for some. Some people keep to themselves more and don't easily adjust to living in new situations. In living with a host family, they feel they have invaded another's life. They feel they must conform to this life, and therefore can't live their own normalcy. This is true even of some American players, and it must be even more true of Latinos.
This plays out in the movie beautifully with Sugar. The scenes at the dinner table are priceless. His host family attempts to speak Spanish to him, and it sounds ridiculous. It makes Sugar feel stupid, as it seems they are talking down to him. He'd no doubt rather they speak slowly in English.
Sugar's interactions with his teammates are also wonderful. He sort of forms a bond with one of his American infielders, understanding some of what he says, but not all of it. He doesn't quite feel right throughout, as is evidenced by his attempt to hang out with the guys at a bowling alley. (I've actually done this with a couple of Latinos. Matos, Kelvin Pichardo, and others used to occasionally join a group of American players for Sunday night bowling. They didn't feel comfortable in the place--surrounded by whites and playing a strange game--but with a little encouragement from myself and a few other guys (and after a few drinks), they began throwing gutterballs with the best of us.) Sugar enters the bowling alley and sees his teammates laughing and carousing from a distance. Yet he can't bring himself to join them. He leaves before even talking to them.
In showing human interactions such as these, the movie excells. The downfall comes from the path of his career. Sugar has a seemingly minor injury and his team has little patience with him. Within a short time he leaves baseball altogether. His entire career last for a couple of months.
Yes, the window of opportunity is short in this game, but this is ridiculous. The kid gave it a mere couple of months. He was earning a paycheck and sending money back to his impoverished family in the Dominican. Despite his troubles, I can't fathom him leaving the game in such a manner.
Sugar then goes to New York and attempts to find work. His mother doesn't understand his actions. Eventually he finds other Latinos and gains a sense of home. He even finds other former baseball players and joins a pickup game.
In all, the movie is an important addition to the baseball genre. Both an immigrant's tale and a baseball tale, the beautifully done human interactions more than make up for the gross inaccuracies in the timeline of his career. If you haven't seen it, it's a must-see movie for all baseball fans.