Sunday, October 16, 2011

Major League

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about professional sports. I’ve been to a few games, mostly just for the experience. Hockey to me is just a monotone blur. I can grasp basketball marginally better (I guess it’s easier to follow a ball than a puck), but my appreciation remains entirely superficial. Sorry for succumbing to a cliché, but the two baseball games I attended remain the longest two weeks I ever daydreamed through. I was never a sports fan as a child in the UK either, but soccer’s relative flow, simplicity and integration chime more with me than (as I see it) the fragmented, weirdly arbitrary rhythms of North American team sports.

Sports Machine

Still, to each his own. The more objectively interesting question is whether the huge sports machine is at this point a net benefit. I mean, it’s a rallying point, a focus for conversation and camaraderie, a generator of economic activity (although I don’t know to what extent it actually generates new wealth rather than drastically reallocating it). But even true believers seem to think something got lost under the enormous weight of money, corporatization, mediatization, standardization. Really, if the whole major league infrastructure vanished into thin air, and had to be replaced with something more organic and simple and community-based, would anyone miss the old machine after a year or two?

More and more, I see celebrity gossip and scandal-of-the-day reporting and, yes, sports as potentially insidious, soaking up our (mostly limited) capacities for engagement, diluting our inclination for action, blunting our capacity of how the whole sorry ship is drifting off course. My purpose here isn’t to argue for a drab and joyless world; indeed, I wonder how much genuine pleasure we take from much of what preoccupies us. I mean, from what I’m told, being a big-time sports fan is time-consuming, potentially very expensive, and if you subscribe to the whole accompanying beer/chips/burgers culture, not much good for your health. The keepers of the faith might say, well, it’s no worse than sitting round watching movies, but to me that depends on the movies, and why you watch them. I’ll come back to that.


Whatever one thinks of all this, major-league sports deserves some grudging, logistical admiration for the immense dynasties and structures and secular cathedrals built upon essentially banal activity. The new film Sugar begins in the Dominican Republic, within a local feeder organization for the Kansas City Knights (which I understand to be fictional, but you’d never know it). There’s little work or opportunity otherwise; these scouting centres create local heroes, with the possibility of huge wealth at the end of the road. At the same time, they’re ruthless, littering the landscape with any number of men who got a step or two up the ladder, but no further.

Miguel Santos, nicknamed Sugar, makes it onto the first step, into training in Arizona, and then onto the next, to a minor league team in Iowa, where he’s billeted on a farm with an elderly couple. Sugar speaks no English; he’s a strange representative for “America’s pastime,” even more so for supposed heartland centres like Iowa or Kansas. But that’s what it takes to feed the beast. The film expertly milks the situation’s inherent comedy: Sugar and his equally bemused fellow recruits eat French toast every day, because that’s the only thing they know how to order in English, and then he complains on the phone home that American food is really sweet. Gradually he finds his feet, picks up more English, makes moves on local girls, starts sensing the possibility of triumph. Meanwhile, other prospects lose their game and get sent home, sealing off the dream forever.

I won’t go further, but this is an engaging film. The co-writers and directors, Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden, previously made Half Nelson, about the relationship between a drug-addicted teacher and one of his pupils. It was less compelling to me than to many reviewers, but still had many virtues, such as Ryan Gosling’s resourceful performance (for which he won an Oscar nomination), and the intriguing attempt to portray his malaise as a response to thwarted liberal idealism. Sugar follows that film’s low-key, observational approach, but the geographic and thematic canvas is quite a bit wider. It’s more conventional in some ways: there’s not much that strikes you as distinctive about its technique or the perspective on the material. The virtues belong more to what I think of as cinema’s anthropological aspect: even if the view it portrays isn’t entirely accurate or balanced, the window is still valuable and provocative, and leaves your engagement with the world a little fuller when you go out than when you went in. This, I submit, could not be said for parking yourself before whatever’s on TSN tonight.

False Promise

The film can’t possibly resolve the overhanging question – is all of this for better or for worse? The system flows money into a poor country (although based on some numbers floated in the movie, it sounds like the Dominicans might do well to receive 10% of what a homegrown college prospect gets), and it does create possibilities. But most of it turns out a false promise, leaving a trail of disruption – people end up somewhere they wouldn’t be, away from the people they’d be with, carrying the weight of squandered possibilities. But then, better to have loved and lost…

Fleck and Boden don’t overstate the point, but the film evokes debates about whether foreign aid, no matter how well intentioned, tends to create structures of dependency, pushing away any possibility of self-sufficiency: Sugar’s sending money home to his family is a recurring image here. But these debates can’t help seeming theoretical when you look at the gaping needs. I know a man who says he supports 31 people back home in Zimbabwe. 31! And I’m not talking about someone who makes bank-chief money; I’m not even sure it’s bank-teller money.

Zimbabwe may be an extreme example, but when you focus on that kind of thing, the global economy is less about the mythical melting pot than about strange and inherently sad displacements. Sugar provides snapshots of how it’s possible to live, very basically and functionally, in the US shadow economy, barely ever needing a word of English, as long as you don’t hit anyone’s official radar. And ultimately, those shadow economies do more to support the frail communities back home than the unreliable dreams of the big time. If you ask me, major-league doesn’t do a whole lot for them, and I’m not sure it ultimately does a whole lot for any of us.

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