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The best baseball movie you've never seen

I’ve often thought that if I wasn’t a sportswriter I would have loved to be a film critic.

I haven’t written any published reviews yet, so you’re about to get a treat — my first official film review.

And it’s a beauty. The film, I mean, not the review.

It’s called "Sugar".

There's added significance to this film if you're a Tri-City Dust Devils fan, because the drama that unfolds in the movie has been played out, to some extent, by many of the Latino and Dominican players that have come through Tri-Cities over the years.

The story follows the roughly three-month span of a young baseball player from the small village of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. “Sugar” is the nickname of a likeable 19-year-old pitcher named Miguel Santos (played by Perez Soto), who realizes his dream of playing profesional ball in the United States. He is a part of a Dominican baseball academy run by the Kansas City Knights — a fictitional major league club.

Like many of his teammates in the DR, Sugar wants to reach the major leagues, but there are several steps that need to be taken before that happens. An early scene in the movie shows a coach telling players about the many levels of minor league baseball and that it's not a just quick jump to the majors. Another shows a coach walking players through some common English baseball terms and phrases (”line drive”, ”home run”, “I got it”) to help make their transition easier if they should get to the states.

When Sugar is invited by the Knights to spring training in Arizona, he gets a valuable piece of advice from a mentor, who tells him, “Life gives you many chances, but in baseball you only get one.”

This underscores the tremendous pressure that foreign players are under to perform well when they get to the U.S. Many are heroes in their small villages back home, but when they arrive in a major-league camp, they see that every other player was a hero somewhere else. And everybody is fighting for a job.

The film does an outstanding job capturing the challenges a foreign player faces in his first trip to the states. The language barrier is a big one, but the film shows a lot of humor and heart as we watch Sugar trying to process his new surroundings.

One memorable scene shows Sugar trying to order eggs in a diner, but he gets flustered when a waitress asks him how he wants them. The touching resolution is one you’ll want to see and one of my favorite parts of the movie.

For his first assignment, the Knights send him to the Bridgeport Swing, their Single-A club in Iowa. It’s a small town, and Sugar gets set up with a kind-hearted (but slightly rigid) host family that immediately sets some rules for living in their home — no drinking and no girls. As hard as they try, they never really connect with Sugar.

Tri-City Dust Devils fans will find a familiar ring to the sounds and sights at the Bridgeport stadium (actually John O’Donnell Stadium in Davenport, Iowa). It’s a cozy park with a scenic view of the local landscape that hits the right notes in bringing an authentic feel to the baseball action.

I’ve always thought Bull Durham was a pretty accurate reflection of minor-league baseball, but at times it was difficult to take seriously. To be fair, it was a romantic comedy, and the target audience was a little different.

Sugar is the most realistic depiction of the game I’ve ever seen in a film. The terminology is authentic and the players are pretty good, too. I didn’t see a radar gun in the film but Sugar appears to bring some decent heat to the plate.

Without giving too much away, Sugar goes through quite a bit in the movie, hitting all the highs and lows and everywhere in between it seems. It might be a bit of a stretch to believe that any player could experience all that in one season, but I believe the point of the writing/directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck was to illustrate how overwhelming life can be for a foreign ballplayer. They succeed.

I don’t know how much time Boden and Fleck, who met as film students at NYU, have spent around minor league baseball, but I can’t imagine anybody doing a better job with the subject matter. The choices they made in terms of casting, location and themes all contributed toward making this a highly memorable film.

Sugar gets my highest recommendation.