There are few sadder places on Earth than a minor league baseball stadium. On any given day in a minor league stadium there’s a very good chance of seeing a heart broken, a career destroyed, or an ambition crushed. The park featured in Sugar, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s new baseball drama, is situated in a fictional hamlet named Bridgetown, Iowa. It is named, perhaps, for the enormous bridge that looms beyond the field’s right field fence.
If the players of “The Bridgetown Swing,” a Single-A affiliate of the big league “Kansas City Knights,” took their minds off of their enormous pressures and considered the surroundings, they might note the brutal symbolism. “Bridgetown” sounds like the perfect place to connect a dingy past with a glorious major league future, but for most of the players it is the end of the road. Whether they realize it or not, they are playing in the shadow of a bridge they’ll never get to cross. This movie is a sobering reminder to baseball fans like myself that the major league teams we love are part of a largely invisible system that chews up young talent, takes what it needs, and mercilessly spits out the rest. The fact that Bridgetown sits amidst the cornfields of Iowa feels like a cruelly ironic play on the great baseball story Field of Dreams. Bridgetown is the Field of Harsh Realities.
Our guide through this world is a young Dominican pitcher named Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a 20-year-old prospect at a Latin American baseball academy whose stock in the Kansas City farm system begins to rise as he masters the “spike curve,” a pitch shown to him by major league scout on the practice field. That one pitch leads to a spring training invite and ultimately to Single-A ball in rural Iowa. Once there, Miguel struggles against an improved talent pool that isn’t so easily fooled by his breaking pitches, and a nearly impenetrable language barrier that keeps him from interacting with most of his residents and teammates or even ordering anything more complicated than French toast at the local restaurant. Reminders of home pop up everywhere, even in packages of white T-shirts: each one bears a “Made in the Dominican Republic” stamp.
Though the focus remains squarely on Miguel – the impeccably understated Soto and his sad, thoughtful eyes appears in almost every frame – Boden and Fleck frequently but subtly remind the audience of the bleak facts of the minor league meat grinder. Watch how Miguel’s number changes throughout the movie – from 21 in the Dominican, to 51 in spring training, and 38 when he joins the Swing – suggesting the way Miguel’s success in America comes at the cost of his identity. Notice, too, that nobody in Bridgetown calls Miguel by his titular nickname, earned back in the Dominican because of his taste for sweets. Even the most well-meaning of the teammates, coaches, or support staff around him don’t bother to get to know him well enough to learn what he likes to be called, or why.
The camera, perched on Soto’s shoulder during high pressure game situations, invites us to share in Miguel’s highs and lows on the mound: we delight in the roar of the crowd after his debut. Later, when a foot injury has sapped his pitch’s bite we cringe as he leaves the field to a shower of boos. Off the field, Miguel’s thoughts remain his own. Since we can understand the English dialogue that he cannot, we often find ourselves in much the same situation as the Bridgetown residents Miguel meets: concerned but emotionally distanced from him.
Boden and Fleck’s first feature was 2006’s highly acclaimed Half Nelson, about a troubled middle school teacher. Their films manage to address large issues without preaching about them by telling intimate stories of good people who make questionable decisions (drugs play a role in both films). They explore genres and tropes that are familiar, but present them in ways that are not; they also have a remarkable skill for coaxing rich, moving performances out of untrained actors. Shareeka Epps, the co-star of Half Nelson, was a Brooklyn student when they cast her; for Sugar, they found Soto on a softball field in the Dominican while researching the project. To get him up to speed they gave him a crash course in acting by having him study professionals like De Niro in Taxi Driver. Based on the results in both films, the two might have missed their calling as acting coaches.
Baseball trains its fans to concern themselves only with on-field results. It’s nice if a superstar comes from humble origins, but no team is going to keep around a mediocre player just because he has a great “story.” Sugar is worth seeing not because it invalidates baseball’s meritocracy, or because it makes us feel guilty for enjoying the national pastime, but because it shows us with empathy and insight how baseball players are more than what they do on the field. It reminds those of us who might get a little too vociferous in our booing of poor performers that a bad pitcher can still be a pretty good person.