Exposing Major League Baseball’s Seamy Side in the Dominican Republic

Courtesy Strand Releasing

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


Ballplayer: Pelotero
Strand
73 minutes

In the riveting new documentary film Ballplayer: Pelotero, there’s an early scene in which four Dominican teens are sitting in a spartan dorm room, shooting the shit about the future they anticipate as professional players in the United States. They joke about how their countrymen play with more flair than Americans and venture that Dominicans are harder workers and more talented than their northern counterparts. Then one of them gets serious. “A lot of us have pulled off tricks so we can sign,” he says. “People change their ages and all that. But that’s just what you have to do.” 

For years, that sentiment—you do what you gotta do—has pervaded baseball in the Dominican Republic, home to 11 percent of major-leaguers, 24 percent of minor-leaguers, and a not-insignificant percentage of the game’s recent scandals. Baseball is seen by many young men and their families in the Dominican as a way out; nearly 3.5 million people live in poverty (including some 1 million who subsist on less than $2 a day), and that sense of desperation has helped contribute to steroid abuse and widespread age and identification fraud among would-be players, often with the help of exploitative talent brokers known as buscones.

In the film, directors Ross Finkel, Travor Martin, and Jon Paley zoom in on two players, highly coveted Miguel Ángel Sanó and under-the-radar Jean Carlos Batista, as they train in advance for the big day: July 2, the first day that Dominican 16-year-olds can sign a contract with a big-league club. They go behind the scenes à la Hoop Dreams to illustrate just how shady the recruiting process can get in Major League Baseball’s favorite feeding ground.

Sanó’s story is particularly disturbing. In 2009, the slugging infielder was poised to break the international signing bonus record set a year before, but suddenly teams started to be scared off by whispers that he was older than he claimed. (As Sports Illustrated‘s Melissa Segura pointed out in January, 16-year-olds from Latin America draw significantly higher bonuses than do older prospects, mainly because teams will pay a premium to be in control of an extra year or two of a young player’s career.)

The film’s engrossing fly-on-the-wall coverage of the Sanó saga shows how invasive—and cruel—MLB can be during its Dominican identity investigations. While his mother was peppered with questions of a past miscarriage, Sanó went through DNA testing and bone scans to prove he was actually 16. Following a meeting at the MLB office in Santo Domingo in which an investigator suggests that signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates would end the stressful age probe, Sanó’s handlers become convinced that the Pirates’ Latin American scouting director, Rene Gayo—a roly-poly, mustachioed sort with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts (read: villain)—spread the age rumors to deflate Sanó’s value. That way, they reasoned, Gayo could swoop in and sign the top-level talent on the cheap.

They also feared that MLB was in on the plan. “Let me very clear about this: There’s only one MLB,” a Dominican baseball official later tells Sanó’s camp. “It’s a monopoly. And it’s their monopoly.” At one point the Sanó family sets up a hidden camera to record a meeting with Gayo, hoping he’ll slip up and incriminate himself. The results are eye-opening.

Sanó, now with the Minnesota Twins’ Class-A farm team, made headlines last week, telling USA Today that he believed “money was exchanged under the table” between Gayo and MLB’s lead investigator. MLB has waved off Sanó’s allegations and dismissed Ballplayer: Pelotero, saying it contains “inaccuracies and misrepresentations.” As commissioner Bud Selig told the Boston Globe, “We spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic, and the people that are down there, as well as those up here, are satisfied we’ve made an enormous amount of progress.”

Perhaps. But as MLB points to its efforts to crack down on fraud and rein in signing bonuses in the run-up to a potential international draft, Gayo’s own response to the filmmakers’ request for comment is telling: “Everyone involved was guilty of doing what their job descriptions demand, and unfortunately this created confusion for the Sanó family.” In other words: You do what you gotta do.

 

Ballplayer: Pelotero gets a wide release on Friday, August 13. The film is not rated. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV features from Mother Jones.

WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

payment methods

WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate