Many of the biggest stars in baseball today are from the Dominican Republic. For Dominican boys, baseball is seen as one of the only ways out of extreme poverty. And for the best players, it's a way to riches. A new documentary film opens today tracking the rise of two Dominican boys trying to make it in baseball. The movie is called "Pelotero," or "Ballplayer." The film started as a college project. But now, it's gotten the attention of Major league Baseball, which isn't very happy about it. The World's Jason Margolis has more.
The film Pelotero opens with scenic shots of boys belting balls, not on lush baseball fields, but on dusty sandlots.
FILM NARRATOR: "20 percent of professional baseball players in the United States come from the Dominican Republic. Over 100,000 young players, or peloteros, all have one dream, to sign a professional contract on July 2nd. This is the story of two peloteros."
The two peloteros are 15 and 16-years-old. Both are elite shortstops and both are trying to get huge signing bonuses. They talk about buying homes for their moms and lifting their families out of poverty.
The film chronicles their intense training. They devote nearly every waking hour to baseball. Trevor Martin co-directed the film. He says one of the boys they followed, Miguel Angel Sanó, is considered a once-in-a-generation talent.
TREVOR MARTIN: "Everybody expected that he was going to sign for the largest signing bonus in Dominican history, people were throwing around numbers of $5 million, $6 million."
But, in the film, it became clear, that Sanó may never see that kind of money. Allegations begin to swirl about the ages of the two main characters, that they're actually older than they claim. Trevor Martin says younger prospects are paid more.
TREVOR MARTIN: "I mean, when you're 16, you can sign for millions, and when you're 18, you'll sign for maybe tens of thousands of dollars, so the difference is huge."
North American teams want younger boys, so they can train them earlier. As a result, lying about age is common in the Dominican. So Major League Baseball has created an office to investigate the age of top prospects, like the players in the film.
NARRATOR: "For a player like Miguel Angel, high profile and likely to cost millions, the scrutiny is even more intense. And with rumors of fraud circulating, MLB orders Miguel Angel to undergo an extraordinary battery of tests."
Such as bone scans and DNA tests. Investigators sift through old photographs of Miguel Angel, along with school and medical records. Finally, his name is cleared, but the investigation dragged on for months, well past signing day. And this is where the film makes some serious allegations about Major League Baseball.
TREVOR MARTIN: "There seems to be no oversight or accountability to any of the investigators who are going around investigating the kids. It became clear, that some nebulous sort of forces were using the investigation as a way to manipulate and reduce the value of our character's signing bonuses."
In other words, the film alleges that Major League Baseball is deliberately dragging out investigations so teams can sign players for less money.
The filmmakers say Major League Baseball declined to be interviewed.
Martin says the film didn't turn out to be the college project they set out to make.
TREVOR MARTIN: "And when it came to the more scandalous or salacious elements of the film, we stumbled into that. I mean, we didn't go looking for that stuff."
Stuff like this charge against Major league Baseball by a relative of one of the boys in the film.
RELATIVE SPEAKING IN FILM: "Ese es una mafia. Comprede? Una mafia, eso es."
This week, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said a lot of things in the film Pelotero were inaccurate.
MLB declined to be interviewed for this story. But spokesman Pat Courtney responded via e-mail.
PAT COURTNEY E-MAIL: "The film has inaccuracies and misrepresentations and does not reflect the current status of operations in the Dominican Republic."
Courtney also said that Major League Baseball has taken a "wide variety of measures" to improve the game's operations.
Major League Baseball signed a new collective bargaining agreement last fall, designed to add more oversight for baseball recruitment in places like the Dominican.
Arturo Murcano is an attorney, organically from Venezuela, who writes about the international business of baseball. He says MLB has proposed many changes in the Dominican, but most haven't been implemented.
ARTURO MURCANO: "You can say they have improved or that they have tried to do something. But, still, the system is full of problems, corruption… Major League Baseball is still far away from dealing with the problem in a proper way."
Pelotero film director Trevor Martin says the criticisms by Major League Baseball of his film are unjustified.
TREVOR MARTIN: "I mean, if you notice, they don't state what is inaccurate, it's just sort of a blanket generalization trying to discredit us."
He says he stands by what's in the film.
But, it's also worth remembering that top Dominican players are still becoming very rich teenagers, some just not as rich as they had hoped.
By the way, for you Red Sox fans, the film's executive producer was Red Sox Manager Bobby Valentine.
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