Many would argue that baseball no longer has a foothold in being “America’s pastime.” Although still extremely popular, it doesn’t carry the same romantic notions as it did in the past. Big business, scandals and the rise of other forms of entertainment have all taken their toll.
In the Dominican Republic, baseball isn’t a pastime either. It’s a way to a better life. Every day, thousands of boys are taking to the field as though it were a job. For a handful, it will become one. Jared Goodman’s Road to the Big Leagues attempts to trace the importance of baseball in the small republic. Although somewhat soft in tackling some of the more controversial aspects, it is still a fascinating look at the sport outside of the bright stadium lights and manicured lawns of the big leagues.
Focusing on Dominican baseball academies, the film follows several youngsters at various stages of development. Some are just starting out, others are on the verge of getting their big break with an American team. Goodman breaks the narrative down by focusing largely on a couple of players. We follow the day-to-day routines of practices, games and English classes. We also follow the boys to their homes, broken down by middle class North American standards. It’s plain to see that these people struggle and that baseball can be a way out of poverty. We hear passionate speeches from the players about how great it would be to step on a MLB field and about their heroes. Coaches, friends and parents further drive home the dream and the cause. The result is often predictable and barely scratches the deeper issues. The boys feel more like models for a system rather than individuals acting within that system.
I would have loved to have seen more personal. This could have been achieved by sharpening the focus to fewer boys. With a potentially limited filming schedule, it may have been tough to film over a longer period of time in order to build a full story arc with just one or two players. Instead, there’s a broader mix, all of whom feel somewhat glossed over.
Road to the Big Leagues hardly touches on the darker side of these Dominican baseball academies. Several have been involved in scandals and I wouldn’t be surprised if more surface in the future. From false identities to embellished ages to corrupt officials, there is a lot of natural conflict that would be much more fascinating rather than the more generic rags to major league riches story. Goodman does address the penalties involved in committing fraud, but it’s portrayed more as an afterthought.
Although a fictional film, I much preferred Sugar, a film that looked at the next step of the narrative where a player comes up from the Dominican to find his way in America. It has that sharper focus and looks at the issues from different angles.
That said, Road to the Big Leagues is a solid introduction to an important part of baseball that is only just starting to get attention. It relies on romantic notions of the game even though it’s anything but romantic.
Road to the Big Leagues Gallery