Sugar is the story—based on truth—of a baseball player from the Dominican Republic who’s called up by the Kansas City Royals to play for their Triple-A team (one step below the major league), with the hope of eventually moving up to the Majors. Two things about the movie stood out for me, one of which is a spoiler.
After leaving the minors, Sugar finds his way to the huge Dominican community in New York’s Washington Heights, and ends up playing ball with all the other DR players who never made it to the Majors. Each one introduces himself in turn: “Jose Vargas, Brewers.” “Manny Randoza, Mets.” “Feliz Orlando, Red Sox,” and so on. It’s an understated scene, yet as powerful as if they were a group of war veterans reciting name, rank and serial number—which, in a sense, these guys are.
What really made me nuts about the movie, and about the real life situation it reflects, were the snafus that arose because of the language barrier between DR players and Americans, including the Iowa family who provides Sugar with room and board, the manager of Sugar’s team, and just about every other professional in the game. Hello!? This problem can be so easily resolved, the fact that it hasn’t been is almost shameful.
Sugar’s host family has been taking in baseball kids for years, yet Mrs. Iowa points to a bar of soap and tells Sugar, “Sopa.” One of the first lessons I learned in high school Spanish 101, and that’s stayed with me all these years, was “The sopa isn’t soap and the ropa isn’t rope.” But if these people are dimwits, so are those who run MLB. I ask you, how hard would it be for Major League Baseball to provide Spanish classes to managers and coaches and English lessons to Hispanic players? I know, I know: we now have players from Japan, China, and the Netherlands; also, each Spanish-speaking country has different dialects if not completely different languages. No excuse! For one thing, Hispanic players dominate MLB. According to a report from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, Hispanics make up almost 25% of players in MLB; Wikipedia puts the number much higher, at 67%. That’s a good enough reason for the baseball power structure to institute SSL (Spanish as a Second Language!).
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the film’s creators, do an ace job portraying the pressure these kids are under; we can’t help but empathize. When Sugar tries a chemical solution to his problems, we instantly comprehend, without judgment, the steroid issue. When he destroys a locker-room water cooler after a bad outing on the mound, we get it—not just for Sugar, but for all the players with their various and sundry misbehaviors.
Algenis Prez Soto, who plays Sugar, is not an actor, but a ball player who Boden and Fleck pulled off a field in the DR. In a radio interview they joked that he was supremely unimpressed to be acting in a movie—and, I’m sorry to say, it shows. Soto‘s performance is the weakest aspect of the production. He employs the long expressionless stare for every reaction and emotional nuance—which is supremely boring, and sometimes renders him inscrutable.
Despite this, Sugar is a pleasure. Most significantly, it opens a door into a world about which baseball fans must surely be curious, and it leaves us with a deeper understanding of these players’ lives.