Baseball fans in general and Boston Red Sox fans in particular might think Bobby Valentine has had a bad year, what with a season of spectacular underachievement by the team and the manager's habit of opening his mouth and inserting his spikes.
But by certain esoteric standards, Bobby Valentine has had an impressive season. Here's why. He is one of the executive producers of a documentary called "Ballplayer: Pelotero," a film in the tradition of "Hoop Dreams," a powerful, eye-opening, consciousness-raising true story about money, dreams, ambition, hard work, greed and exploitation. Oh, yeah, it's about baseball, too. It's a primer on how the so-called free-market system works. Sure, it's a sports movie, but it's so much more.
"Ballplayer: Pelotero" focuses on two of the thousands of impoverished teenagers in the Dominican Republic who put in hours that far exceed most full-time jobs, training for and practicing baseball so they can escape poverty, provide for their families and succeed at a vocation they love.
Astin Jacobo, a Dominican "trainer" of young shortstop Juan Carlos Batista, unabashedly compares his job to that of a farmer who plants seeds, nurtures the crop through harvest and then sells it. And he sells at a tidy 35 percent commission of whatever bonus a major-league team pays for his "crop."
And here's the thing. Jacobo comes off as one of the good guys in "Ballplayer: Pelotero," a true and much-needed father figure for Batista.
There is also Rene Gayo, who at the time of filming (2009) was head of Dominican scouting for a major-league team and whose tactics in dealing with teen shortstop Miguel Angel Sano are so intimidating, duplicitous and heavy-handed that he's referred to as "mafia."
"No one loves you more than I do," Gayo tells Sano, a creepy moment in the film.
Performance-enhancing drugs, age fraud and even identity theft are not unknown in the Dominican, as the pressure builds to hit the major-league jackpot, to sign for a bonus at 16 (after that, viewers are told, a player's value precipitously declines).
Batista, who to the unschooled eye certainly seems to be bursting with big-league potential, confides "I get scared at tryouts," where men he doesn't know hold the power to transform his life or cut his dreams short in a matter of minutes.
The film points out that the 1962 pennant-winning San Francisco Giants had four Dominicans, among the first major leaguers from that country, in Felipe Alou, Matty Alou, Manny Mota and Juan Marichal, and that they were signed for a combined $5,000 in bonuses at a time when the team was paying its best white prospects $60,000 each. If you think, well, that was 50 years ago and things have changed, the film points out that when big-league teams were paying their white prospects $1,000,000 each, future superstars Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero and David Ortiz were signed for a combined $4,000.
Make no mistake about it, some Dominican prospects sign multimillion dollar bonuses with big-league teams. And in the past 20 years, big-league teams have invested heavily in the training and recruiting of peloteros on the island. Additionally, in can be argued that, say, a $250,000 bonus for someone living in squalor is quite a windfall, nothing short of economic salvation, bigger money going to gringos notwithstanding.
Now it's not clear how much Bobby Valentine had to do with the making of "Ballplayer: Pelotero." He is one of five executive producers, and the only one with a name familiar to baseball fans. The lion's share of the credit for the making of the film has to go to a triumvirate of directors/writers/cinematographers: Jonathan Paley, Ross Finkel and Trevor Martin.