For most, baseball is a pastime; for some, it’s a way out. In the Dominican Republic, pelota (Spanish for “ball”) has produced some of the biggest names in Major League Baseball: Sammy Sosa, Ozzie Virgil Sr., David Ortiz, and more. But a precious few make it through the selection process, where injured players are treated like animals.
In Sugar (2008), directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), a young baseball star finds disillusion on the path to success. Nineteen-year old Miguel “Azúcar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a star pitcher at an elite training camp for the Kansas City Knights in the Dominican Republic. During the week, he trains with other hopefuls in a gated compound.
On weekends, Azúcar (Spanish for “sugar”), leaves the manicured lawns and Spartan comfort of the academy for the chaos of his small village outside San Pedro de Macoris. He is treated like a local celebrity; neighbours gather to welcome him home and children swarm him for extra baseballs. To his fatherless family, Sugar is a beacon of hope. With the money he earned upon joining the academy, Sugar started to build a new home for his mother, grandmother, sister, and brother.
Boden and Fleck subscribe to a philosophy of showing, not telling the struggles of young baseball emigrants. As part of their training, the aspiring MLB players learn English game terms: “fly ball,” “line drive,” “ground ball,” “home run.” When Sugar is invited to spring training in the United States, his trials extend beyond the pitching mound. In the motel restaurant, he eats French Toast at every meal because it’s the only thing he knows how to order. Eventually, he graduates to a minor league team in corn country Iowa. Hosted by the kind and baseball-crazy Higgins family, Sugar does well at first.
He finds friendship with Jorge Ramirez (Rayniel Rufino), the only other Dominican player on the team, and Brad Johnson (Andre Holland), a million dollar pitcher signed straight out of Stanford. However, everything goes downhill for Sugar after a leg injury during a routine play. Faced with mounting isolation and the pressures of competition, Sugar begins to question the significance of his life’s ambition.
“Life gives you lots of opportunities,” his uncle Frank tells him before he leaves for the States. “Baseball only gives you one. When it comes, take advantage of it as much as you can. Enjoy it.”
Sugar will be sure to disappoint fans of sports films like Remember the Titans and A League of Their Own. It does not follow the conflict-rally-win formula, nor does it offer easy to swallow observations about the sport. Although the pacing sometimes meanders along, Perez Soto brings an understated depth to the title role. Sugar is as much a movie about immigration as it is about baseball and works up to a young man’s epiphany about following a different kind of American Dream.
Sugar opens April 17 at the AMC Forum.