Anyone who remembers the first incarnation of television's Saturday Night Live likely recalls Garrett Morris' signature character, Chico Escuela, the Latino baseball player with the broken English: "Base-eh-ball been bery, bery good to me." In the Dominican Republic, however, such unblemished faith in -- and love for -- baseball is no joke. A successful career in the major leagues is the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches tale of choice in the tiny Caribbean nation, where the sport holds a unique, transformative power spotlighted by the Spanish-language documentary Road to the Big Leagues (Rumbo a las Grandes Ligas) .
Outside of the U.S., the Dominican Republic contributes more professional baseball players than anywhere else in the world. And these guys aren't also-rans. They include many of today's sports superstars, such as Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and the retired Sammy Sosa. Such players join an august group that boasts greats of yesteryear such as Juan Marichal, Cesar Cedeno, Rico Carty, Manny Mota and Tony Pena.
Briskly paced and tightly structured, Road to the Big Leagues succinctly illustrates how baseball is the brass ring for scores of young Dominican men. First-time director Jared Goodman follows a handful of big-league hopefuls as they try to turn those dreams into reality. Vladimir Gomez is a young boy who aspires to be the next David Ortiz. Seventeen-year-old Juan Cabrera is a gifted batter who has tried out for several teams without success. Los Angeles Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who resides in a mansion in his native country, muses that he likely would be raising okra or shepherding cattle if he weren't a ballplayer. And as a cautionary tale, Road to the Big Leagues also profiles Miguel Mercedes Pegrero, a supremely talented athlete who is now a loan-shark after being booted from the Boston Red Sox organization for forgery of a birth certificate.
Goodman periodically returns to David Ortiz, who is interviewed while he's in Santo Domingo to practice with several Dominican up-and-comers. The Boston DH offers his own memories of being a baseball-obsessed youth, recalling that he used to sever the heads of his sister's dolls so he could use them for baseballs.
Road to the Big Leagues is entertaining, particularly for baseball fans, but the filmmakers perhaps could have thrown an occasional curveball. It's understood that the majors promise riches for those who are fortunate enough to break in, but the docu doesn't explore why baseball is so overwhelmingly popular (as opposed to, say, soccer). We certainly see evidence of its importance. In a fascinating aside, the film takes us to a baseball-centric school where would-be major leaguers focus on the English they will need to know to communicate in big-league dugouts.
The film's interview subjects are engaging and sympathetic, but viewers surprisingly get little feel for daily life in the Dominican Republic. There are some flashes, such as Vladimir Gomez and his chums playing ball with the lid of a water jug, but Road to the Big Leagues does not swing for the fences.
Still, there are far worse traits than a documentary that leaves you wanting more. Fascinating, expansive and compacted into a lean 53 minutes, Road to the Big Leagues is a treat for baseball buffs.
Road to the Big Leagues' full-frame picture has softness and minor grain in several scenes, but the visual quality is serviceable if unremarkable.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is adequate - nothing more, nothing less. Optional subtitles are in Spanish.
Good stuff. There is a three-minute, 45-second interview with the Minnesota Twins' Carlos Gomez (shot shortly after being signed to a big-league contract), extended footage of Ortiz' tryout scene (4:32) and an interview with director Jared Goodman (4:09) lifted from a weekly Boston Red Sox TV program. Best of all is an atmospheric mini-featurette on Quisqueya (12:08), a celebrated baseball stadium in Santo Domingo.
Baseball fans are likely to enjoy Road to the Big Leagues for deftly capturing the Dominican Republic's love affair with major league baseball. While director Jared Goodman stops short of deeper examination of his subject, his documentary is consistently entertaining and introduces audiences to some appealing would-be big leaguers.