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Reviewed by:
  • Sugar
  • Simon C. Darnell
Sugar (2009). Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Executive Producer Anna Boden. Sony Pictures Classics. 120 mins.

In 1995, American anthropologist Alan Klein argued that in order to understand the cultural, ideological and political significance of baseball in the Dominican Republic, it was necessary to interrogate the broader relationship between the Caribbean nation and the United States. This was the case, Klein put forth, given baseball's North American roots and the political and economic domination of the D.R. by the U.S., but also because Major League Baseball (MLB) had come to rely more and more on the labor of Dominican players to fill the ranks of both its minor and major leagues. Since then, the percentage of MLB players from Latin America (as well as Asia) has increased, as have strategies to broaden the game's global appeal such as the nation-based World Baseball Classic. Still, Klein's insights remain cogent, particularly his view that the ways in which baseball's sociopolitical processes play out for the Dominican people in and through the game at home and abroad constitutes an enduring "sports drama."1

The recent film Sugar is one such example. Although Sugar is a baseball drama, it is more a story about politics and culture told through the aspirations and struggles of a young right-handed pitcher from the D.R. [End Page 445]

In the film, Miguel Santos, nicknamed "Sugar," has signed with the fictional Kansas City Knights and literally taken up residence in their Dominican-based training facility. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Los Angeles Dodgers created baseball academies in the D.R. to identify and cultivate "talent" for export to the U.S. that could then be further developed in the professional minor leagues. The Blue Jays' and Dodgers' interest in Dominican baseball reflected the popularity and quality of the game in the D.R., a result of its complex appropriation and re-invention by the Dominican people after it spread south through American economic and military expansion.

Sugar, with his fellow academy participants, trains under the watchful eye of local coaches and American evaluators, takes classroom courses in American baseball language and culture, and resists (poorly as it turns out) the urge to break curfew to celebrate young, athletic masculinity. Sugar also promises his family, for whom he is building a new house, that he will use his right arm in support of the family's economic wellbeing. While such narratives of baseball (and other sports) in the service of class-based upward mobility are familiar within American culture and American sport films, the context is decidedly different in this case. As Klein argued, the migratory system of professional baseball has continuously offered young men first and foremost a way out of the D.R. and into the U.S., as much as an opportunity to make a living as a baseball player. The film also gives a brief glimpse into the operation of baseball academies that, as Klein noted, effectively "produce" ballplayers for export to the U.S. at reduced prices.

Once in the minor leagues, Sugar is sent to the Knights' single-A (rookie) affiliate in Bridgeport, Iowa, the Swing. It is here that the film shifts its thematic focus from Dominican struggles for geo-political baseball success to the culture shock presented by small-town America. Sugar mistakenly partakes of a hotel's mini-bar not realizing the inflated prices of its contents but also struggles with his home-stay family, their proclivities for religious proselytizing, and the threat—racial and cultural—that young Dominicans and other ballplayers pose to the homogeneity of Midwestern American life.

Predictably, the standard dramatic narrative arc demands that Sugar experience some success with the Swing before things take a turn for the worse. An injury, Sugar's temper, and high demands for himself, as well as the pressure to impress and earn promotion combine to undermine his performance and to reduce the club's confidence in him. At the same time several of Sugar's friends and teammates are either cut or promoted. At the film's dramatic...


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