Baseball movies are as American as, well, the national pastime itself. It's probably because we Americans love a good Cinderella story, and there's never been a baseball movie that didn't feature an unlikely hero succeeding against all odds. The sport is the perfect vehicle for that kind of hopeful tale because of the way it requires talented individuals to work together. Until recently, it was as American as hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet, but things change. These days, hot dogs will kill you, apple pie makes you fat and Chevrolet is being propped up by your tax dollars because Detroit decided to build too many gas-guzzling SUVs while you bought a Honda.
And baseball? Well, it ain't what it used to be, either. In recent years, the specter of steroids has seriously tainted what little remained of the game's integrity. Mark McGwire can't buy his way into the Hall of Fame, and the current home-run champ, Barry Bonds, is on trial for lying about—you got it—steroids.
And yet, the world still loves baseball. There are schools set up across Latin America filled with young players who dream of making it to the Majors Leagues. It's there that Sugar, the latest heartbreaker from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), begins.
Algenis Perez Soto, an actual ballplayer from the Dominican Republic, plays Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a hotshot young pitcher who, like so many men his age, has dropped out of school and is banking everything on getting to The Show.
Sugar's good-looking, has a sweet curve ball and can surpass 90 mph on the radar gun. He's good, and he knows it, so he isn't entirely surprised when he gets the call—the fictitious Kansas City Knights want him for spring training. He does well and is recognized as a prospect with potential, so the team sends him to Iowa to pitch for one of its lower-echelon minor-league clubs.
Baseball fans know that Iowa has a serious baseball pedigree. Sure, if you build it, they will come, but does that mean that putting a dark-skinned Dominican teenager in a totally unfamiliar rural environment guarantees his success? Um, no. Especially when he's housed with a family that doesn't speak Spanish but does have a cute, Christian granddaughter (Ellary Porterfield), who isn't a tease, exactly, but is certainly attracted to the hunky ballplayer.
Yes, America loves a Cinderella story, but what we fail to remember is that plenty of glass slippers are broken along the way. The odds against success are huge. When Sugar's friend is cut from the team, Sugar is understandably upset.
“He's not an animal,” he says. No, he's not, but the young players are treated like thoroughbreds. Major League Baseball teams invest millions of dollars in generations of kids like Sugar in the hopes that a few of them will end up stars. The others are left in their wake, flat broke and with few marketable skills. It's not personal—it's just baseball.
Take Johnson (Andre Holland), the team's highly touted second baseman. Sugar comes from nothing, a poor kid from a small island nation, while his teammate just graduated from Stanford and got a million-dollar signing bonus. If he fails, well, there's grad school to think about. But if Sugar doesn't make it, his options are truly limited. This movie is more real life than most baseball movies—the pressures on these young players are enormous; there really is no one looking out for them, and if they fall, there's no safety net.
Sugar may not mean much to people who don't know the game, but for baseball fans, it's required viewing. In its way, it's sad and tragic, an emotional bean-ball and one more strike against the sport. But don't get too upset—a joyous new season is upon us. And, besides, there's no crying in baseball.