Oscar Sunday WN-Style: Top 3 Must-See Under Appreciated Baseball Movies

It’s Oscar Sunday and we wanted to take this moment to share three of our favorite baseball movies with the Wrigleyville Nation. These are not the movies that typically show up in the top ten lists – The Bad News Bears, Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, The Natural, 42, Major League, A League of Their Own, or Field of Dreams. All great movies in their own unique ways — but everybody has already seen these baseball movie classics. The following three movies — all three about kids playing the game of baseball – were under appreciated in the sense they were too little known and watched when they were released. (I suspect that very few readers have seen all three!) The first movie is a recent documentary; the second film was based on a true story that took place in 1957; and the third is steadily growing into a cult classic that has in the last few years finally started to get the recognition it deserved when it was released in 1993. All three are on the top shelf of my movie collection, along with the classics mentioned above.

Ballplayer: Pelotero (2012)

“Unfortunately, this is the country of lies.”

This compelling documentary provides an inside look at the world of baseball training camps in the Dominican Republic and the controversial system that culls talent for Major League Baseball (MLB) teams. The film, which was produced by Bobby Valentine and narrated by John Leguizamo, follows the lives of two Dominican teenagers as they chase the dream of playing professional baseball in America. The film follows top prospects Miguel Angel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista, both of whom are about to turn 16, which means they can be signed by a Major League team and ultimately move up to the big leagues if they are good enough. Among the subjects of the film is the elusiveness of age in Dominican baseball culture. Dominican players are not subject to MLB’s first-year player draft; instead, teams can sign Dominican players who are 16 or older on July 2 every summer. Dominican families and players are incentivized to lie about age because a 17-year-old stands to sign a much larger bonus, or simply have a better chance of signing at all, if Major League clubs think he is only 16. As we see in the movie, the lie often begins early in cases where Little League-aged boys show youthful promise of great baseball talent. In the movie, we see the last vestiges of the system that drove signing bonuses into the high seven figures in the past decade. The bonuses are not as great under the current rules – newly implemented international free agent spending limits went into effect in 2012 – but the system described in the movie remains.

The system involves Dominican buscones and MLB teams and their scouts and the potentially exploitative framework in which they operate. The film has a political edge that, in significant respects, portrays MLB as an exploitative cartel. The buscones are the independent agents in the country who train young players until they can sign as professionals, often demanding in return up to half of the players’ signing bonus after housing, feeding, and training the kids for free for years in small-scale baseball training camps.  Buscones have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years and have been known to advise players to take PEDs and lie about their age in order to increase their value as prospects. The Dominican Republic continues to be one of the richest exporters of baseball talent to the Major Leagues and teams, including the Cubs, have invested mightily in scouting and developing talent on the island. You’ll have to watch the movie and judge for yourself why the system is so vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation, whether by MLB teams, the buscones, or the families and players themselves.

Miguel Sano was the better prospect of the two boys and ultimately signed with the Minnesota Twins for more than $3 million, a great deal of money by most standards but especially so for a poor teenager from the Dominican Republic. Still, prior to the controversy surrounding his age explored in the movie, Sano was rumored to be in a line for a bonus as high as $5 or $6 million. While Batista has languished in the low minors in the Astros’ system, Sano has emerged as the Twins’ version of Cubs’ top prospect Javier Baez. During his age-20 season last summer, split between high A and AA, Sano hit a combined 35 homers with a slash line of .280/.382/.610. Along with Baez, he is probably the top power hitting prospect in baseball right now. Unfortunately, just yesterday, the Twins announced that Sano needed to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and would miss the 2014 season. Fortunately, with modern surgical techniques such injuries are no longer as devastating as they once were – much less so for position players like Sano. The story told in the movie will make Sano’s career arc that much more interesting in the coming years.

The Perfect Game (2009)

“Yogi Berra said 90% of the game is half mental”

“Well I must be a 100% mental to think I could teach you baseball in four weeks.”

If you have Little League-aged kids, The Perfect Game is the perfect movie for family movie night. Based on a true story, the movie tells the story of a rag tag group of kids from impoverished Monterrey, Mexico who shocked the world in 1957 by winning 13 straight games on their way to becoming the first non-US team to win the Little League World Series. Led by Coach Cesar, a former clubhouse attendant for the St. Louis Cardinals, and bolstered by the will of a local Priest, the boys grow from a raggedy sandlot team on their way to Little League immortality. The story follows the kids on their journey though the southern United States to Williamsport, PA, for the Championship game, during which they endured parental objections at home and blatant racism and bigotry on the road in late-1950s America. The script is far from perfect and the movie is littered with baseball and cultural clichés. But it is a charming and heartwarming movie with a storybook ending. The boys ultimately win the Little League World Series in dramatic fashion by …. sorry, you will have to watch the movie to find out!

The movie takes a while to get going, but it is fantastic once the boys start their journey toward Williamsport. The movie is enhanced with the use of black and white newsreel footage of the real team interspersed throughout the movie. Also in the movie, while I’m not certain of the historical accuracy of the episode, the boys meet the great Negro League icon James “Cool Papa” Bell, who provides encouragement along the way. Eventually, they make it to the White House as Little League champions, where they get to meet President Eisenhower. Utlimately, The Perfect Game is a unique and thoroughly enjoyable film and for baseball fans well worth watching with or without the kids. Here is a teaser:

The Sandlot (1993)

“Man, this is baseball. You gotta stop thinking. Just have fun.”

“You’re killing me Smalls!”

Since time is running short and the Academy Awards begin in a few hours, I am going to take a short cut. I cannot in any case improve on Roger Ebert’s 1993 review, where he aptly calls The Sandlot the summertime version of The Christmas Story.

Like the latter movie, The Sandlot was vastly under appreciated when it was released but subsequently developed into something of a beloved cult classic. Cult is not quite the right word, but the movie has garnered an ardent following in recent years culminating in last summer’s 20th anniversary reunion celebration. I love this movie. My kids love this movie. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love this movie, which for me flawlessly captures the tone of a perfect childhood summer full of mystery, youthful hiijinks, friendship, and baseball. I will step out of the way for the late great Chicagoan Roger Ebert, on point as usual in 1993:

If you have ever been lucky enough to see “A Christmas Story,” you will understand what I mean when I say “The Sandlot” is a summertime version of the same vision. Both movies are about gawky young adolescents trapped in a world they never made and doing their best to fit in while beset with the most amazing vicissitudes.

Neither movie has any connection with the humdrum reality of the boring real world; both tap directly into a vein of nostalgia and memory that makes reality seem puny by comparison.

“The Sandlot” takes place in a small American town in the early 1960s. A new boy named Scott (Tom Guiry) arrives in the neighborhood and desperately wants to fit in. There is a local sandlot team with eight players, and so he could be the ninth – if only he could play baseball! He cannot. He’s so out of it, he doesn’t even know who Babe Ruth was. He asks his stepfather to teach him to play catch (there is a quiet poignancy in being asked to be taught such a thing), and his stepdad agrees, but puts it off, and then one day Scotty finds himself, to his horror, on the sandlot in left center field with a fly ball descending on his head, which it bounces off of.

That would be the end of his baseball career, were it not for the understanding of Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez, the best of the players, who tactfully teaches Scotty what he needs to know, thus launching the finest summer of his young life….

These days too many children’s movies are infected by the virus of Winning, as if kids are nothing more than underage pro athletes, and the values of Vince Lombardi prevail: It’s not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose. This is a movie that breaks with that tradition, that allows its kids to be kids, that shows them in the insular world of imagination and dreaming that children create entirely apart from adult domains and values. There was a moment in the film when Rodriguez hit a line drive directly at the pitcher’s mound, and I ducked and held up my mitt, and then I realized I didn’t have a mitt, and it was then I also realized how completely this movie had seduced me with its memories of what really matters when you are 12.

Like he did with so many movies, Ebert nailed it in 1993 while the movie was being panned by many other critics, poorly marketed by its Hollywood producers, and ignored by large segments of the movie-going public. If you haven’t already done so, see it before the snow melts! In the meantime, enjoy this classic scene from the movie:

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