By 2008, more than 25 percent of major league baseball players were born in Latin America. At 19, Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a serious kid from the Dominican Republic, signs with Kansas City. He flies to Phoenix for tryouts and is sent to the Class A team "The Swing" in the fictional town of Bridgetown, Iowa, where he lives with a farm family. Thus begins his odyssey: leaving his mom and girlfriend; living in an alien culture; learning English; overcoming jitters; working hard; achieving early success; navigating friendships, occasional racism, and a woman's mixed signals; dealing with an injury; trying performance-enhancing drugs; and, searching for his place in the world. Will he make it to the Majors; will he play in New York? Written by
The success of Latin ball players like Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, and Orlando Cepeda are legend but we never hear about the hundreds that fail, those who get lost in the system or are simply unable to handle the pressure of exorbitant signing bonuses or less than welcoming small town environments. In Sugar, writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose film Half Nelson from 2006 won numerous awards, have created a film about the problems faced by young Latinos in attempting to make the jump from the comforts of their home town environment to the major leagues. It is not just a movie about baseball but about what is important in life.
20-year-old Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is nicknamed Sugar - he says because he is sweet on the ladies but others have different opinions. Sugar is a pitcher at an American baseball training academy in the Dominican Republic whose recently developed knuckle curve ball puts him ahead of the pack. He is the idol of his family and the children in his home town but must compete with hundreds of others like himself for an invitation to a minor league Spring Training camp. Though the baseball academy attempts to teach the fundamentals of the English language, all the players seem to remember is "home run", "foul ball", "I got it", and the words to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game".
Given his gifts, Sugar is invited to spring training with the fictional Kansas City Knights in Phoenix, Arizona. Eventually assigned to a Single-A farm team in Bridgetown, Iowa, he is light years away from his comfort zone. When he first sees his posted assignment to Bridgetown, Ia. he asks "where the heck is Ia (ee-ay)"? Sugar boards with a Midwestern farm family that has taken in Latino players in the past, but the adjustment is difficult. Sugar does what is expected - attends church, eats foods he is unfamiliar with, and says little but his only companion is Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), a fellow Dominican on the team who has remained stuck in Single-A ball because of an injury that refuses to heal.
Soon his problem with language and customs begin to take their toll. He encounters racial slurs at a local nightclub and is confused when he receives mixed signals from the family's ultra religious teenage daughter Anne (Ellary Porterfield). When he is slow to recover from a leg injury sustained in covering first on a ground ball, his pitching skills begin to suffer as well. One scene highlights his sense of dislocation as he tries to make his way through a massive entertainment complex filled with flashing lights, video game machines, and bowling alleys. To try to regain his pitching form, he takes steroids but it only makes his sense of disorientation worse.
His manager (Johnny Marx) is patient but he is paid to produce results and his sensitivity to Sugar's situation only goes so far. When Sugar asks teammate Brad (Andre Holland) what he would do if he could no longer play baseball and learns that Brad studied history in college, he begins to rethink exactly what he wants to do with his life. After Jorge heads for New York after being let go, the film moves in an unexpected direction, but never loses its intelligence and sensitivity. Soto is a captivating presence in his first acting role and the fact that he is also a skilled amateur baseball player gives the baseball scenes an electric authenticity. While Boden and Fleck show their love of the game, they do not hide their disdain for its exploitative aspects. No clichéd sports success story, Sugar is sweet and goes down easy but leaves a pungent aftertaste.
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