“What they’re doing is illegal,” producer Isaac Solotaroff said of Major League Baseball’s practices in the Dominican Republic. “They could never do this in the United States.”
Solotaroff’s remarks came after a screening of his documentary, "Ballplayer: Pelotero" in Wallace Hall Monday afternoon. He was joined in the discussion after the film by economics professor Hank Farber.
The film followed two Dominican prospects, 16-year-old Jean Carlos Batista and 15-year-old Miguel Angel Sano, as they went through the process leading up to July 2, the day on which the MLB allows Dominican players to sign with teams. In the film and in the ensuing discussion, Major League Baseball came under heavy criticism for its perceived exploitation of impoverished Dominican baseball players.
As depicted in the documentary, both Batista and Sano trained for years in hopes of getting drafted. They left home to live in complexes operated by coaches. The film depicts the conditions in which the players’ families live — Sano’s family lived in a building the size of a shed — and repeatedly returns to scenes in which everyone — coaches, agents, players and their families — emphasize the importance of signing a big league contract. As maybe one in 30 players signed by an MLB team will make it to the major leagues, Solotaroff said, the signing bonus is the only money most players will see for their years of baseball, other than monthly stipends they receive while playing in the minors.
The film portrays how the importance of the signing bonus leads to dishonest behavior of the players and of the teams. Sano, like many Dominican players before him, was a top prospect who came under scrutiny because he was suspected of lying about his age. MLB rules stipulate that a foreign player cannot sign before he is 16, but teams are wary of drafting players who are older than this. The result is widespread deception, according to the film.
Sano was subjected to numerous tests and a lengthy investigation before he was able to clear his name by proving he was 16. The film touches on how his family, his coach and the makers of “Pelotero” believe that the controversy was intentionally stirred up by the MLB and the team most interested in Sano, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in order to bring his price down and sign him to a team in need of good players.
“It has the appearance of being a free market because these kids are called free agents, but they are being funneled to one particular team,” Solotaroff said.
He also believes that because of the consistently poor performance of teams like the Pirates — who had their 20th straight losing season last year — the MLB wanted certain prospects to go to certain organizations.
Sano was eventually cleared by the MLB and signed with the Minnesota Twins for $3.15 million. Batista, on the other hand, turned down a lucrative offer from the Houston Astros because he believed he could get a larger bonus from a different team. Before he received another offer, however, an MLB investigation revealed that he had been lying about his age and was actually 17. After being suspended for a year, Batista signed with the Astros for $200,000, less than half of what he had been offered originally.
Much of the signing bonus does not go to the player, according to the film. Both players intended to buy their families nicer houses and other amenities, and the film showed Sano doing so, but as much as 35 percent of the money may go to the coaches who work with players for years in hopes of getting them signed.
In Batista’s case, his coach was counting on money from the signing bonus to keep his baseball academy going. The epilogue to the documentary explained that Batista was successfully sued by his coach after his true age was revealed and his value dropped.
Though there is deception on the part of some players and extortion on the part of some coaches and agents, there was a consensus in the conversation following the screening on who was truly to blame.
“The villain here is really Major League Baseball,” Farber said.
The MLB declined to participate in the making of “Pelotero,” but the league’s most recent collective bargaining agreement limited the amount of money a team could spend on international players to $2.9 million, meaning that bonuses as large as Sano’s are no longer possible.
In recent months, the MLB appears to have been moving closer to establishing an international draft, which would function like the current MLB First Year Player Draft and would eliminate some of the problems depicted in “Pelotero.”
“This free agent system is a completely broken system as it is, and there are plenty of leeches that are taking advantage of these kids,” Solotaroff said.
Indeed, the central message of his movie was essentially summed up by the words of an official at the Dominican Baseball Commission:
“There is only one MLB. It’s a monopoly,” he told Sano and his family in the film, adding, “This is happening because he’s poor.”
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the full title of the film. It is called “Ballplayer: Pelotero.”The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.
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