Sugar: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Tale of Baseball Hopeful

Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden burst onto the independent film scene in 2006 with their feature debut Half Nelson, a sensitively wrought drama that earned five Spirit Award nominations and brought its star, Ryan Gosling, an Oscar nomination for best actor.


With “Sugar”, the talented and audacious writing and directing team has created another unexpected hero in Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a baseball hopeful who journeys from a poverty-ridden village in the Dominican Republic all the way to a minor league farm team in the U.S. An unconventional look at one immigrant’s story, “Sugar” examines and redefines what it means to chase after the American dream.


A lifelong baseball fan, Fleck thought he knew everything there was to know about the game. He knew that for decades the small island nation of the Dominican Republic has been supplying American teams with some of their most talented players: home run hero Sammy Sosa, the Alou brothers, pitching greats Juan Marichal and Pedro Martínez, and many more. But until a couple of years ago, he had no idea why. When Fleck and his partner Anna Boden learned that the Dominican Republic is home to training academies for every major league team in America, they were immediately drawn to the human side of the phenomenon. “We were less interested in the stories of the superstar Dominican players that we’ve all heard of,” says Fleck. “We wanted to know the stories of the guys that you’ve never heard of and you never will hear of.”


“Sugar” follows a talented young Dominican baseball player named Miguel on his journey to the United States to play for a minor league team in rural Iowa. “It’s not a typical story about someone trying to make good and lead the team to the championship,” notes Boden. “It’s about this particular person trying to adjust to a totally new world. It’s a new take on the immigrant experience, with the hero ending up in a small town in Iowa instead of moving to a big city with a large immigrant community.”


In the Dominican Republic, where baseball has been popular for more than a century, the sport is often seen as the quickest way for a man to lift himself and his family out of poverty. An estimated 15 percent of major league players are Dominican-born, making the Dominican Republic second only to the United States in producing major league ballplayers. Even more impressive, more than 30 percent of players in the minor leagues, where up-and-comers are groomed for stardom, are from the island. Every year, hundreds of young hopefuls arrive at the academies eager to show their stuff to scouts from the U.S., but only a handful make it onto the rosters of major league teams.


“I think this is going to open a lot of people’s eyes to an aspect of the game they’re not familiar with,” says Fleck. “At the same time, it’s also a coming-of-age story and a self-discovery story, and I think many people will be able to relate to that experience.”


To research the film, Fleck and Boden began spending time in the Dominican Republic getting to know the local baseball community. One of their first meetings was with Junior Naboa. A former player, Naboa is now assistant general manager and director of Latin American operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He works out of Baseball City, the camp where most of the scenes on the island were shot.


Naboa, who experienced the difficult transition to professional player firsthand, became the filmmakers’ initial window into the world of the baseball academies. He introduced them to current players, former players and academy officials and explained how aspiring players age 16 and over come to the academies to have their potential

assessed. If they meet the academies’ stringent standards, they may be invited to stay for anywhere from a few days to a maximum of four weeks for further evaluation.


“In that time, we have to decide if we like the kid and want to sign him or not,” Naboa says. The stakes are extremely high. If a player is signed to a contract, he typically receives a bonus of about $20,000, a small fortune in an impoverished nation where the average yearly per capita income is less than $3,000.


But even before kids reach 16, they are often caught up in the island’s vast baseball training industry. “There are independent private facilities that work with young players from an early age,” explains Boden. “Some coaches start training kids from Little League age. Many kids go to school and then train in the afternoon, but others drop out of school at 12 or 13 to train full-time in hopes of achieving this nearly impossible dream. And if they don’t make it, they don’t have any sort of education to fall back on.”


As Fleck and Boden listened to the stories of dozens of current and former players, Miguel’s journey began to take shape on the page. “Although it’s ultimately a pretty personal story about a very specific person and his journey, it came about through this accumulation of details of a common experience,” says Fleck.


Once the script was ready, Boden and Fleck called Half Nelson producers Jamie Patricof, Jeremy Kipp Walker and Paul Mezey.


“They had put together a story that was honest,” says Patricof. “It’s not the story of a poor boy that comes out of the ghetto and makes it to the major leagues. It’s about following your dreams and your passions, and at the same time, always making sure that the goal you’re chasing is a goal you really want.”


Mezey was similarly drawn to the film’s themes of self-discovery and identity. “It’s a different viewpoint on a story of immigration, and it’s also a story about understanding who you are as a person,” he says. “Miguel’s whole life is baseball. But he suddenly realizes that this thing that he’s really good at, he’s not exceptional at. Once that’s stripped away, what do you do”


Mezey’s earlier films have included HBO Films Maria Full of Grace, as well as La Ciudad and Our Song. Like Sugar, they were stories about the struggles of immigrants and the working class. “I thought it was really important for us to represent Sugar’s world as authentically as possible,” he says. “It’s an obligation we had as storytellers.”


The baseball community responded to the filmmakers’ commitment to authenticity with an outpouring of support and goodwill. “Everywhere we went, we’d hear “You’re telling our story,” says Mezey. “And everybody along the way has really wanted to help facilitate us in that.”


With only a few exceptions, none of those cast as Dominican baseball players had ever acted before. To find an actor with the right combination of physical ability, drive and naïveté to play Miguel, the filmmakers auditioned more than 600 actors at casting sessions all over the U.S. and in the Dominican Republic. The filmmakers personally toured local ball fields and interviewed hundreds of baseball players in the Dominican Republic.


“If we found someone interesting, we’d bring him in for a callback to read from the script,” says Boden. “A lot of them had no idea what they were doing, but their coach or manager had told them to come. Some of them thought they were going to be on PBS. We got really lucky and we found some amazing young people who were just so natural and fun to work with.”


It was from among a group of young men playing softball that the filmmakers spotted Algenis Pérez Soto, whom they eventually cast as Miguel. Like so many other Dominicans, Pérez had hoped to be one of the chosen few who are admitted to the academy. “Baseball is the most important sport in this country,” he says. “I played baseball until I was 20. Everyone wants to play baseball. Every father wants his children to have a chance to be the next Sammy Sosa or Pedro Martinez. It’s a sport that can change your life in one day.”


Pérez feels Sugar is a second chance to experience that life, albeit under different circumstances. “Because I never signed, it feels like a godsend. I was never in an academy when I was a baseball player. Being in the movie, I met a lot of important people, like José Rijo and José Cano. That didn’t happen when I was a baseball player, but it’s happening now.”


Producer Jamie Patricof has high praise for Pérez and for the daunting process that led the production team to him and the rest of the cast. “Finding the right Miguel was challenging. In the States, everyone wants to be an actor; down here everyone wants to be a baseball player. My hat goes off to Ryan and Anna because they spent months doing research and casting. They had to see probably a thousand kids, stopping from town to town, from baseball field to baseball field and setting up a camera, which is not a normal thing down here. Americans don’t just stop you and say, ‘Can you audition for a movie'”


Pérez went through a rigorous training program before shooting began. He had given up playing baseball seriously several years earlier, and when he did play, he was a shortstop and second baseman, never a pitcher. To help him learn the playing techniques he would need to portray a rising young star on the mound, the filmmakers brought in a major league pitching coach who worked with Pérez for two months.


Pérez also worked one-on-one with Dominican baseball legend José Rijo. One of the preeminent pitchers in Major League Baseball during the 1980s and 1990s, Rijo was a three time All-Star and was named MVP of the World Series in 1990. “Algenis got the role not because he was a good pitcher, but because he is a good actor,” says Rijo. “But he=s also a good athlete, which made it easy for me. In the film, he looks like a professional pitcher. To have two months to do this role and to be this ready for it, he has to be a gifted player.”


One of the Dominican Republic’s best-known baseball players, Rijo was hired by the Washington Nationals to head up a training academy on the island after he retired. When the filmmakers were looking for a consultant to help organize the players and the teams, Rijo was one of the first names that came up.


In addition to his consulting role, Rijo also landed a part in the film as Alvarez, Director of the Kansas City academy. “He was so charismatic and charming, we had to put him in the movie,” says Fleck. “He had tons of great stories about when he played baseball. And he used to play for the As, my favorite team.”


Rijo’s life is in some ways the quintessential Dominican success story. He started playing baseball when he was six years old. As a Little Leaguer, he was a member of the Dominican National Team, and he signed with the Cleveland Indians when he was just


José Rijo recalls a Dominican saying that you can only leave the island two ways: by swinging the bat or by throwing the ball. “The main reason we play is that we are poor,” he says. “We are desperate to leave the country and find a way to help our families. I was throwing a ball and I was throwing it well, because that was the only way I could help my family.”


As tough as things are today for young players, Rijo says it’s a vast improvement on what he lived through. “When I first signed, there was nothing even close to this. We would just sign and go to the United States and start playing right away.”


Rijo was thrilled at the chance to work on the film. “I thought the script for Sugar was awesome when I first read it,” he says. “It’s about my life. And to be able to do something so different, to be acting and consulting for a movie, it was just an outstanding opportunity.”


Manny Nanita, who played minor league ball for the Minnesota Twins organization in the late 1990s, was cast as Reyes, the head coach at the academy where Miguel trains. Nanita was forced to retire as a player because of an injury and now works at the Boston Red Sox academy. “I know what these kids are going through. I came back to the Dominican to try and keep playing, but that didn’t work out.”


Like Miguel and most of his compatriots in the movie, neither Nanita nor Rijo spoke much English when they arrived in the U.S. Writer-director Ryan Fleck says this is typical for young ballplayers from the Dominican Republic. “For most of them, the number-one problem is language. Specifically, ordering food and finding food. They usually eat at someplace like McDonalds, where there are pictures.”


Even if a player is good enough and lucky enough to be sent to the States, his financial future is far from certain. “Starting salaries in the minor leagues average around $1,000 per month,” says Fleck. “American players can get a significant signing bonus to offset a few years of low pay, but Dominican players are often paid far less than American kids getting signed out of high school or college.”


To lessen their financial burden and help them acclimate, many teams assign players to live with American host families during their first few seasons. While not all teams do this, Anna Boden says the filmmakers chose to set the story in a small town where this was the practice, “so that Miguel in the film would be able to experience the community in a much more intimate way.”


The Higgins family, who become Miguel’s surrogate family during his time in Iowa, represent a composite of real families the filmmakers interviewed while developing the script. “They’re baseball fans who have been doing this for years,” says Fleck. “They have extra room in their house and they like to take care of the players, but their number-one priority is seeing the team win.”