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Movie Review: "Sugar"

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Every baseball fan should see "Sugar". After a limited theatrical release this spring, the DVD will be out on September 1 and I was lucky enough to get sent an advance copy for review. Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who did "Half Nelson" in 2006, this film is well worth your time.

The basic story line is simple: Miguel "Sugar" Santos is a 19-year-old pitching prospect from the Dominican Republic who is attending a baseball academy run by the fictional Kansas City Knights (obviously based on the Royals). After being taught a knuckle curve by an older Dominican mentor, he gets on the fast track to spring training.

That's where the storyline gets deeper and richer. We learn much about Sugar's family and way of life in the DR and see exactly how so many families there hope and wish and dream of a better life when they have sons with baseball talent.

Sugar does exceptionally well in spring training (you'll recognize the Oakland A's facilities at Papago Park and Phoenix Municipal Stadium if you've been there) and is assigned to "Bridgetown", the Knights' low-A affiliate in Bridgetown, Iowa. The city is fictional, but the team's home park is clearly John O'Donnell Stadium in Davenport, Iowa (visible ads on the stadium outfield walls promote businesses in Davenport), and the team is even called the Swing, which was the name the current Quad Cities River Bandits of the Midwest League used from 2004-2007.

And that's when his dream begins to fall apart. Sugar (you'll learn his nickname has nothing to do with his baseball ability) is hosted by a family on a farm in Iowa who speaks virtually no Spanish; since he speaks almost no English (despite classes given in English for ballplayers at the academy), it limits how he can communicate in this land so alien to him. There's only one other Dominican on the team, and though Sugar pitches well at first, some very realistic (in baseball terms) things happen that cause Sugar to question his goals, even while trying to make his family think he's still pursuing them. He's lonely and isolated and it begins to affect his performance on the field.

I found both the acting and the baseball action (including the actions of fans in the stands) much more real than in most baseball films; the on-field play in particular is quite good in "Sugar", as opposed to the typical baseball movie where we watch actors like Kevin Costner attempting to impersonate major league players. There's a funny scene where the local radio broadcaster attempts to interview Sugar about a good game he's just thrown, and his catcher translates the questions and answers -- but not exactly the way they were actually spoken. Quite a number of major league players, past and present, were enlisted to accomplish all of this realism; ex-Cincinnati Red Jose Rijo is listed as "baseball consultant" in the credits, but others, including Jesus Alou, Junior Noboa and current Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch also contributed to making this baseball movie very true-to-life.

It also helps you understand the struggles and conflicts of young men who come to a country that is so different from their own, and how only the best of the best survive to become an Aramis Ramirez or Vladimir Guerrero (who was painfully shy and spoke virtually no English when he first came to the USA).

Get this DVD when it becomes available and watch this film. Highly recommended.