‘Sugar’ presents bitter tale of baseball exploitation

Tuesday, June 2, 2009 at 1:00am

Sugar tells the story of heartbreak, injury and prejudice a young Latino boy experiences after moving to a small Iowa town to make it in America's baseball major leagues.

Whether you love or despise baseball, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s vital film Sugar presents a tale everyone needs to see. The production, which opens Friday at The Belcourt Theatre, looks at the tough road that Latino prospects from poor countries must travel to reach America’s major leagues.

And, it shows the moral dilemmas involved when young men from impoverished families have a chance at what they deem instant riches and the possibility of making more money in a few years than most of their friends and families could earn in a lifetime. Sadly, there are far more tales of failure than triumph, and Sugar shows both the charm and the dangers inherent for those willing to take the risk.

Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) isn’t that different from many other kids in the slums of the Dominican Republic with one major exception. He has legitimate athletic skills and baseball talent, things that are discovered when he attends an academy supervised by a Major League Team. Santos doesn’t speak any English, a huge obstacle when negotiating with veteran scouts and executives. But despite that problem, Santos eventually makes his way to a Class A minor league team in Iowa, the first step in making the big show.

But before he reaches the top, Santos gets a glimpse at life in small-town America for a young, inexperienced Latino with meager conversational skills. He encounters a type of racism and condescension he’d never remotely considered, while living with an elderly couple that has made housing aspiring Latino stars a cottage industry.

Sadly, Santos discovers that pursuing your dream can often lead to more pain than ecstasy. He encounters injuries, heartbreak and develops a drug habit. That in turn leads to another odyssey, one that will finally test whether he has not only the physical skill necessary to be a big-leaguer, but the heart and will to survive operating in a world that has little value for him beyond what he can do on a baseball diamond.

Sugar makes its political and cultural points within the athletic narrative, and never turns into melodrama or propaganda. But its depiction of not just the Latino baseball experience but that of immigrants trying to make their way is gripping and factual. Neither the residents of small-town America nor the wave of imported athletes were truly prepared for each other, and while much of the rhetoric and reaction has definite racist and xenophobic tinges, there’s also understandable dismay and misunderstanding from each camp about the other.

Boden and Fleck don’t try to soften the picture, or make it seem impossibly difficult. They show Santos as a real human being, with flaws and problems that add to his obstacles, but also with the charm and resilience essential to maintain his quest.

Sugar has strong and sometimes negative things to say about the treatment of young Latino ballplayers and Major League Baseball’s still evolving process for incorporating them into its structure. Yet, it has both good and bad things to say about how America is adjusting to newcomers and their impact on its sport and culture.

Written and directed by: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michael Gaston, Jaime Tirelli, Jose Rijo, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield, Alina Vargas
Time: 114 minutes
Rating: R
Our view: Though this is a fictional story, it presents in accurate and strong fashion a realistic tale of the problems encountered by Latino baseball players trying to make it in America.