Asked why people call him “Azúcar” (Sugar), Miguel Santos (Pérez Soto) replies: “I’m sweet with the ladies.” A friend offers an alternative explanation: “He eats so much dessert.” Hungry, athletic Sugar is sweet enough to rot a molar, until his hopes begin to sour. A gifted pitcher, he embraces the Dominican Dream — to climb out of poverty by signing with a major-league team in the United States. San Pedro de Macoris, the town in the Dominican Republic where Sugar trains, was home to Sammy Sosa, Pedro Guerrero, Mariano Duncan, and 70 other baseball stars, and it is where Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck open their film, at a training camp designed to supply our country with practitioners of its national pastime. Protected by fences and an armed guard, it is not unlike the textile factory that employs Sugar’s mother and sister, except that this facility is in the business of producing and exporting premium baseball players. “There’s nobody better,” Sugar tells his girlfriend, assuring her that he will soon be driving a Cadillac. The 20-year-old has been focused since age 11 on playing for the New York Yankees, and it seems like a fulfillment of all he has ever wanted when, at the end of the film’s first act, Sugar flies to Arizona to compete in spring training for a spot on a professional roster.
More like baseball scouts than movie directors, Boden and Fleck filled most of the positions in Sugar by hanging out at diamonds in the Caribbean. The novice actors they chose, including Pérez Soto, have had much more experience reading a coach’s signals than studio screenplays, and they endow the film’s depictions of life on and off a baseball field with documentary authenticity. Sugar earns a place on the all-star roster of sports movies; it is as much a study in culture clash as in how to throw a knuckle curve. It swerves sharply away from the base paths and into the netherworld of illegal immigrants.
“It’s the same game we played back home,” Salvador assures a newcomer to his minor-league club, but, though three strikes constitute an out in both Hispaniola and the Bronx, Sugar enters a foreign country whose social rules baffle him. Part of the problem is linguistic. Arriving in Phoenix with no English beyond the essential phrases — “line drive,” “pop-up,” “home run” — he was taught in training camp, Sugar orders French toast every meal simply because he cannot express in English the kind of egg he wants. Sent to a class-A team in Iowa, he boards with a couple of elderly monolinguals who inform him in pidgin Spanish of the rules of their residence. Pointing to a compartment of the washing machine, the wife states: “You put the sopa in here,” though soup is a less effective detergent than jabón.
Seeing his pitcher distressed by injuries and losses, the manager of the Bridgetown Swing consoles Sugar: “I’ve been in your exact situation.” However, though he, too, has struggled in minor-league limbo, the manager avoided the added burden of being a stranger in a strange land. The Hoop Dreams of baseball, Sugar is a bittersweet account of desperate outsiders competing in a sport that defines success as making it to home.