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01/29/2008 1:58 PM ET
'Sugar' a hit at Sundance Film Festival
Indie baseball film features Dominican hopefuls
tickets for any Major League Baseball game
Producer Jeremy Kipp Walker, actor Rayniel Rufino, writer/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, producer Jamie Patricof, and actor Algenis Perez Soto at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT. (Jay Burke/MLB.com)
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PARK CITY, UT -- Major League Baseball fans know the Pedro Martinez or Sammy Sosa story well. A young Dominican ballplayer claws his way through the minor league hierarchy, eventually finding his way to fame, fortune, and hero status. Baseball is so pervasive in the Dominican Republic, how could a young ballplayer not dream of finding his way to the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium?

But for every Big Papi, there are hundreds of thousands of young dreamers who never reach the top, either by lack of ability or shifting priorities. Scores of young Dominicans who come to cities across America with stars in their eyes struggle to fit in to new cultures. They are far more likely to end up living paycheck to paycheck in Washington Heights, Jamaica Plain or Hialeah than collecting a Major League pension.

Such is the story of "Sugar," a fictional narrative feature film that premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah last week. The film was written and directed by "Half Nelson" helmers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and features a sizeable Spanish-speaking cast. Dominican national and 1990 World Series MVP Jose Rijo was a baseball advisor and appears in a cameo role.

Nominated for the dramatic category Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, "Sugar" sparked quite a buzz among festival-goers for its honest and unflinching portrayal of life as a minor leaguer (The prize was awarded to the drama "Frozen River").

Miguel "Sugar" Santos is a 19-year old pitcher from Santo Domingo who is plenty confident about his abilities. "I'm sweet with the ladies, but mostly I've got the sweetest knuckle curve there is," he tells a friend.

Sugar is played masterfully by newcomer Algenis Perez Soto, plucked from obscurity to beat out 600 other candidates for the part. Soto brings an inspired mix of competitiveness, earnestness and athleticism to the role, and avoids a single false note.

Despite his relative poverty in Santo Domingo, life is good for Sugar, who has a supportive family, great friends, a devoted girlfriend, and a bright future.

He competes with several other Major League hopefuls on the KC Knights at one of the many Dominican baseball academies, and when he finally gets the spring training call to Arizona's Cactus League, he jumps into the ocean in a screen moment that beautifully captures Sugar's innocence, youthful exuberance and optimism.

Sugar is a wide-eyed youth in Arizona as he familiarizes himself with the everyday differences from his life in a poor Santo Domingo neighborhood, including the wonders of hotel mini-bars, adult movies and hair dryers. With a sizeable contingent of Latin players and sympathetic locals, however, he manages to get by.

Life changes when Sugar is abruptly shipped to single-A Bridgeport (Iowa) Swing. Here he begins to face his biggest challenges with language barriers, cultural differences and an increasing sense of isolation. There are fewer Latin players in Iowa, and Sugar is placed with the Higginses, a religious and well-meaning family of baseball fanatics. Of one of the recent players they hosted, they reveal, "Junior Sanchez. He had a decent glove but couldn't bunt to save his life."

The bulk of Sugar's journey takes place here, as he struggles with the homogeneous nature and provincial attitude of rural Iowa. The "fish-out-of-water" theme is exemplified through a long single-take tracking shot through the flashing lights and cacophony of a video arcade as Sugar seeks and finds his friends, only to feel more isolated than ever before. With the Swing, he struggles with the ups and downs of baseball, but maintains his fascination with a possible life in New York City. He tacks up a calendar of Brooklyn Bridge and a small card from Santo Domingo beside his window, which looks out on the rolling green cornfields of Iowa.

While in Iowa, Sugar makes a series of decisions that will permanently change the course of his life. His journey does eventually take him to New York City, where he reconsiders his path, and the film transitions to a classic "coming-of-age" story.

Andrij Parekh's pristine cinematography shines throughout, mixing and matching a gorgeous Latin-inspired palette in the Dominican Republic with lush green farmlands in Iowa, and then to the mish-mash and abandon of New York City.

With "Sugar," the filmmakers may have arguably captured the most authentic and socially realistic baseball feature film to date. College ballplayers attending a Sundance screening said the film's depiction of the behind-the-scenes world of potential Major Leaguers was the most realistic they had ever seen on the big screen. No wonder, as the filmmakers note that the actors were cast as much on athleticism as on acting ability.

Moviegoers seeking the fantasy of sparks raining from 600-foot homers or ghostly ballplayers appearing from cornfields may be disappointed. That being said, Sugar provides a realistic, refreshing and new take on the baseball film.

Though it could be argued that "Sugar" is about immigration and the American dream, the film also acknowledges that everyone's American dream may not be the same. As Sugar's friend Jorge, played by Rayniel Rufino explains, "Life gives you many opportunities. Baseball gives you one."

"Sugar" was financed by HBO Films, and is currently exploring theatrical distribution.

Jay Burke is a Producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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