Sugar: Dominican Baseball’s Everyman

Para la versión en español, clickea aquí

Synopsis

Sugar (2008) tells the story of a Dominican baseball player who gets recruited to play in the minor leagues in Iowa. After facing loneliness, racism, and lots of pressure, he leaves for New York City where he works odd jobs and joins a Dominican league of rejected baseball players.

The Post-Balaguer Era

After Joaquin Balaguer ceded power in 1996, Leonel Fernandez won the presidency and brought his party, the PLD, to power for the first time. Fernandez was born in the Dominican Republic but moved to Washington Heights shortly after he was born. After finishing high school, he studied law in the Dominican Republic and formed his own party. During his first term, Fernandez stabilized inflation and enhanced participation in hemispheric forums like the Summit of the Americas. However, Balaguer’s party declared that Fernandez offered little change and denounced him and his party as comesolos (lone eaters), an insult that suggests they do not have the sharing spirit of the Dominican people. In the 2000 elections, there were 3 major candidates including Joaquin Balaguer. He lost and finally left the political scene, but these elections brought Bosch’s revolutionary party back to power with President Hipolito Mejia. Unfortunately, his administration struggled with inflation, food shortages, and blackouts so Fernandez promptly won the next elections in a landslide. He would remain president until 2012 and during that time he would create Santo Domingo’s first subway system, stabilize the economy, and normalize relations with Cuba while remaining allies with the US.

Leonel Fernandez & Fidel Castro

The History of Dominican Baseball

Juan Marichal

To understand the world of Sugar, it’s important to know the historical foundation of baseball in the Dominican Republic. Amateur baseball leagues became extremely popular in the 1930s and 40s after it was introduced to them by Cuban immigrants. As part of his public works projects, General Trujillo would build the country’s first baseball stadiums and further popularize the sport as a way to strengthen relations between his country and the US. Over the years Black American players like Satchel Paige would come to the Dominican Republic to play. The first Dominican to come to the MLB was Osvaldo Virgil in 1956.

He spent a decade in the league at six different clubs including the Detroit Tigers, where he was the first black player. Though he has been largely overlooked since the second Dominican in the league became an even bigger star: Juan Marichal. 

The Dominican National Team

He and the Dominican Alou brothers won the World Series for the San Francisco Giants in 1962. Unfortunately, his reputation was marred by an incident in 1965 when he clubbed LA Dodger, Johnny Roseboro, after thinking that he was going to attack him. He was plagued with racist chants and even his manager remarked that “we have trouble, atrocious mistakes because we have so many Spanish-speaking and Negro players on the team. . . . You can’t make most Negro and Spanish players have the pride in their team that you get from the white players. And they just aren’t as sharp mentally.” This stereotype of the bumbling and violent Dominican has haunted players even today, but they are still far from giving up the sport. Over 800 Dominicans have played in the MLB including Sammy Sosa and David Ortiz. According to the MLB, the sport has contributed almost $80 million to the Dominican economy and created 2,000 jobs. Though to this day, no facilities named after Virgil or Marachal exist in the country.

Impossible Success

Sugar

When most people think about Dominican baseball players, you think about instant meteoric success and incredible natural talent. Sugar shows the other side of things. It follows a naturally gifted player who doesn’t have enough to make it to the Major Leagues. The system in place to aid these athletes only works if they are unimaginably talented. If not, they are left in the wilderness without the tools to survive. For example, the Dominicans are given English lessons but only baseball-related English. When the players go to a diner, they don’t know enough English to even order food. They are also faced with the racism of rural Iowa, something they haven’t faced before in their close-knit, homogeneous neighborhoods. Though other black Americans face this discrimination, they have the tools to overcome it. Sugar’s only Black American friend, Brad, is a graduate of Berkeley and has a clear plan for his future, should his baseball career not work out. Sugar on the other hand did not finish high school. He only focused on baseball and his mentors in America and the Dominican Republic approved of this.

Happiness in Mediocrity

Sugar

After a while of playing in the minor leagues, Sugar succumbs to the pressure and starts taking performance enhancement drugs. He becomes more and more isolated until he finally leaves for New York City. He enters a different space of success. He won’t stay in America as a superstar but he won’t go back to his neighborhood to become one of the many forgotten rejects. He becomes an apprentice to a carpenter in New York and forges a new path. Instead of sending millions from his MLB paycheck or doing odd jobs around the neighborhood for his mother, he sends her home a table that he made. The ending scene shows Sugar playing a game of baseball with other Dominicans who had initially come to America through the minor leagues. It is extremely different from all the other scenes of him playing a game. In Iowa, they are marked by a staggering silence. For the first time, we see him actually having fun. The scene is full of yelling and smiles, a stark difference. He may not have become a star, but he doesn’t feel like a loser. He is happy in his station in life.

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