by Brian Kapur
Current Staff Writer
“I just caught the bug right there. I loved it,” said Martin.
Then he figured out how to tie his new love of filmmaking in with his other passion — baseball. While in Boston, Martin got an up-close look at Major League Baseball stars Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, both of whom were born in the Dominican Republic. That inspired Martin and his two co-directors, Ross Finkel and Jonathan Paley, to find out about the lesser-known and controversial recruiting practices in that country.
The result is the movie Ballplayer: Pelotero, whose title includes the Spanish word for baseball player. The film opened in 10 theaters scattered across the country Friday, July 13th, including the West End Cinema at 2301 M St. (Final showing: Thursday, August 2 at 5 p.m.) It’s also available via video-on-demand services and through iTunes, and it will released on DVD on September 4th.
“We recognized that the game is globalizing, and specifically Latinos were becoming a major force in the game,” Martin said, noting that 20 percent of major leaguers are of Dominican descent. “The only imagery really associated with it were kids playing stick ball on dusty Dominican streets with socks as balls. So we wanted to go down there and try to shed some light and figure out for ourselves what the process is.”
The documentary depicts the 2009-2010 recruiting season in the Dominican Republic, with cameras following two teenagers through the process. Their real ages and the practices of the major league scouts are both shrouded in controversy. The Dominican recruits try to appear to be 16 years old, because that’s the age that garners the biggest money, while the scouts try to sign them by dangling promises of fame and fortune. For major league teams, signing Dominican players is cheaper than snagging American prospects.
“In the Dominican Republic a lot of emphasis is placed on how old you [are]. … People will change their identity to appear 16,” Martin explained. “Major League Baseball now investigates all prospects, and the process plays out in the film. You don’t know whether the two characters are who they say they are until you watch the movie.”
The film builds to the July 2 signing day, where “fortunes are made overnight,” according to Martin. This recruiting practice has come under scrutiny because it encourages kids to drop out of school to pursue baseball careers.“You can’t help the fact that they are selling the dream to these kids, and a lot of these people believe that baseball is the best way to change their lives,” Martin said. “It’s a sad state of affairs because — as we are all aware — it’s incredibly rare to become a professional athlete. If you are dropping out of school at age 12 to pursue that dream … there’s something wrong with the options that are presented to you as a child.”
The film has drawn the ire of Major League Baseball, which has offered public criticism.
“The film has inaccuracies and misrepresentations and does not reflect the current status of operations in the Dominican Republic,” reads the organization’s statement to the New York Daily News. “We believe that these changes have made our systems and practices more effective for our Clubs, players and the various parties who contribute to the Dominican baseball establishment.”
But Martin and the filmmakers vehemently disagree.
“They claim that it’s inaccurate. It’s very frustrating to hear that because the commissioner of baseball, who is doing a lot of this complaining, has also admitted to never even watching the movie,” said Martin. “I invite them to watch the film and to actually respond [and say] what is inaccurate. I stand by this as an accurate representation of Major League Baseball’s recruiting practices on the island in 2009 and 2010.”
Martin also points out that the league has yet to probe several of its employees who displayed unethical behavior in the film. “Some of the most questionable conduct captured in the film has never been investigated whatsoever,” he said.
Despite the controversy, Martin’s opinion on the film’s subject matter is torn. Baseball brings good things — including jobs — to the island, he allows. But he also sees a system that sells an unlikely dream to “the most marginalized members of Dominican society who truly believe they have the chance to become [baseball players].”
That uncertainty comes through in the film.
“We tried very hard to not have this be a heavy-handed indictment of Major League Baseball,” Martin said. “We leave it up to the viewer to make a value judgment at the end of the day. We didn’t want to tell you how to feel about it. To me that’s one of the film’s successes.”
This article originally appeared in the July 18 issue of The Northwest Current.