Since I devoted my last column to a cricket film, I thought that I would spend my time this week on a film about baseball, cricket’s long-lost American cousin. Spring training is now well under way, and if you are looking for a film to fill in the time when you are not pondering which left-handed relief specialists will make your favorite team’s 25 man opening day roster, Sugar (2008), a deft and rather accurate portrayal of minor league baseball, is more than worthy of your time.
(By the way, I am keeping track of Aaron Laffey‘s progress in Peoria.)
Baseball films, along with almost all conventional sports films, are generally derided for their underwhelming ability to vary their exceptionally conventional themes and plot structure. The protagonist (team or individual) must overcome long odds and defeat a villainous opponent in heart stopping, dramatic fashion. Occasionally, the protagonist faces defeat in tragically honorable circumstances but is still viewed as ultimately triumphant. Far too often this formula grows tiresome and boring. There are times when such formulas succeed and create some wonderful cinema. (See Lagaan.)
Yet the greater sports films, the ones that become more than simple “sports films,” are those that seek ways to create a narrative that refuses to conform to the established formula. Sugar, written and directed by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the creative duo behind the wonderful Half Nelson), not only fails the sports film conformity test, it asks its viewers to reconsider why they would value such a traditional narrative structure. In doing so, it presents a vision of sport in which we ponder where we can find joy in activities that would seem so simple: play and childhood games.
The tale of Sugar begins conventionally enough. Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a promising young Dominican pitcher who plies his trade in a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. His dream, and the dream of all the Dominican players in the academy, is to receive an invite to spring training, which will hopefully evolve into an eventual career in the major leagues. As the story progresses, our hero does indeed get a call to spring training and, rather than being sent back to his Dominican club, is assigned to a minor league team, a signal that he is viewed as potential major league material.
Miguel’s dreams are apparently being realized all within the span of the film’s first 4o or so minutes, and then the obstacles present themselves. Miguel begins to feel homesick, experience severe culture shock in Iowa, sees one friend promoted, and witnesses another cut for poor performance. Miguel’s own performance, which had begun promisingly, suffers drastically. The manager attempts to discuss matters with him, yet the conversation only highlights Miguel’s isolation and cultural loneliness.
At this point in the narrative, Sugar is still firmly within the realm of a conventional sports film. The hero needs only to overcome these obstacles with some assistance from kindly friends, teammates, and coaches. Ideally, he would turn around his career and lead his team to some measure of success. However, Miguel quits; he walks away from his team because he no longer enjoyed playing. The first time I watched Sugar I felt crushed by the character’s actions and initially hoped that Miguel would find a way to rejoin the team, redeem himself, and succeed on the field. As I continued to watch, I realized that Boden and Fleck were rethinking and redefining redemption and success.
Miguel never returns. He travels to New York and begins to eke out a living as an undocumented immigrant working odd jobs and finding connections among the large and diverse Hispanic population in New York City. It is here that Miguel finds his own redemption and success. He is no longer stung by the loneliness he felt as a minor leaguer in Iowa, and rather than throwing a baseball, he finds joy in woodworking. As he continues to work, he sends money home and makes connections and friendships in New York. He even starts throwing a baseball again. This time, though, he is pitching in a rec league, and this is his success.
The film ends with Miguel drawing upon his minor league pitching ability and blowing away overmatched rec league hitters. Miguel feels genuine happiness as he returns to the bench to receive congratulations. Miguel then momentarily looks downcast and despairing as he wonders “what if.” What if he had stayed? Would all of his dreams have come true? Major league success and the riches that would have followed could have been his. Yet his temporary doubt is replaced by a warm smile of friendship and happiness. Miguel felt joy because he enjoyed the act of playing a game with friends, not because he was on a quest to become the hero of a prototypical sports story.
In the end, Boden and Fleck ask us to reconsider why we value the sports story, or the narrative structure that so often accompanies it. Why is joy and fulfillment only possible through the outcome of athletic achievement in which one measures oneself by some arbitrary way of keeping score? By any conventional measure, Miguel is a failure who quit on his team and did not have the internal strength and character to overcome the obstacles in his path. Yet I think that Sugar asks us to examine the cost of pursuing such a goal. Trying to make the major leagues made Miguel miserable. The choices he made to abandon professional baseball eventually brought him happiness.
And should not the play of sporting games produce joy and happiness. Just about every single children’s sports league attempts to reinforce the notion that they should play to have fun and not keep track of who is winning or losing. Of course, the adults and the children ignore these notions as they know that everyone will be measured by their wins and losses and not their own internal happiness. Such an ingrained philosophy is gleaned in part from the sports narratives that insist that fulfillment and legitimization only come from triumph on the field. Sugar offers the antithesis to such an ideology, and it should be required viewing for all little league coaches.