Intentional Walk: SUGAR, pragmatism, and life after baseball

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's great 2008 sports movie is a radical believer in starting fresh

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Baseball is back. Whether it should be is another question. You could argue that Major League Baseball’s long-delayed 2020 edition, now only two weeks old as of this publication, has been a health care disaster thus far. Multiple players, coaches, and staff from the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have already tested positive for COVID-19. Rumblings from the league office suggest that the entire season may be in jeopardy if things don’t turn around quickly.

By deciding to play games outside a strictly controlled “bubble” environment as the NBA and NHL have done, MLB will likely continue to see these flair ups of the virus for various reasons. Lax protection protocols and enforcement seem to be the main cause at first glance. But in many ways, the fault lies with the league office and commissioner Rob Manfred, who has mostly delegated policing responsibilities to the teams themselves much like Trump has done with individual states.

So the question remains when is enough…enough? When is it too dangerous or costly to continue?

Watching the craziness of MLB’s young season unfold, it’s fascinating to juxtapose the obvious passion baseball inspires in fans of all ages (none of whom can actually attend games this year) with the grave risks being placed upon players, coaches, staff, and everyone else these teams employ. But ceding individuality for the good of the team is built into a baseball player’s DNA.

Hell, the sport calls certain plays the sacrifice fly and suicide squeeze for a reason.

Professional baseball players are hard-wired to play the game “the right way.” Time and time again, films and other mediums have simplified things down to easily digestible binaries. The lone wolf mentality is selfish while the team as a whole is virtuous. Now though, the pandemic has created a new wrinkle in this scenario. Playing baseball has never been so literally about life and death.

This theme - individuality vs. team well-being - crops up a lot in baseball movies and sports films in general. Comedies like Major League (1989) and its superior sequel Major League II (1994), and the sobering biopic Eight Men Out (1988) by John Sayles, each explore how the wants and desires of individual players contrast with the self-serving institutional values of the sport itself.

One of the best recent examples, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar (2008), looks at this dilemma from the vantage point of a young Dominican pitching prospect named Miguel “Sugar” Santos, who’s spent his entire life working toward a single goal - playing professional ball in the United States. For two long years since signing, Miguel has been waiting for his chance, practicing at the local baseball academy for a fictional team named the Kansas City Knights.

Very rarely do sports films dedicate the bulk of their time to a player’s life off the field, but Sugar does just that. Much of the first act patiently explores the economic and emotional pressures that will inevitably influence Miguel’s decisionmaking and development as a player. So much is riding on his success, including his impoverished family’s financial well-being and future plans. But this reality is something his coaches want Miguel to repress. One of them constructs an entire pep talk around this sentiment: “Put all your energy into your game, into your development as a ballplayer.”

This dichotomy between individual success and team dynamics produces unique tensions that define Miguel's experiences, not only as a player but as a provider for his family. He’s constantly reminded that failure is not only a possibility but a reality. So many of his friends and older male family members have followed the same path and fallen short.

All of this weight hangs on Miguel’s shoulders when he finally does get the big chance to play for a spot on the Knights team in spring training. Throw in the language barrier and seemingly inadequate support system put in place for foreign ballplayers traveling stateside and it quickly becomes clear how the pressure to succeed can become overwhelming for someone in Miguel’s position.

Sugar follows a traditional story arc once Miguel makes the Single-A squad based in rural Iowa, where he’s given lodging by a baseball-obsessed elderly white couple. So far removed from his family, friends, and culture, Miguel finds support and friendship with the other Latin American players, and a highly recruited prospect from Stanford named Brad (played by Moonlight’s André Holland). Initially, Miguel finds great on-the-field success. During the team’s first stretch of games, he’s an unhittable starting pitcher getting gushing write-ups in the local paper.

But a seemingly minor injury to his foot stalls that momentum. Frustration mounts, and tempers flare. For a player who has become so used to upward advancement, any lateral movements in career trajectory are devastating to the psyche, especially considering the complexities surrounding his financial situation and undocumented status. He doesn’t have the luxury to wait and see how things turn out.

After arriving at this narrative crossroads, Sugar turns radically pragmatic for a film about professional dreams. Facing the very real prospect of being let go by a team that no longer believes in him, Miguel decides to walk away before he is forced to experience the shame of failure. At first, his decision could be read as an act of cowardice and abandonment from the team’s perspective. But in reality, it’s an act of bravery that professional athletes are rarely given the chance to seriously consider.

While never literally communicated through the script, Miguel internally ponders the following questions in his own way. Does this sport make me happy any longer? Is this still the journey that makes the most sense for me and my family?

The third act of Sugar takes place entirely off the baseball diamond, as he tries to rebuild his life from scratch in New York City. These scenes are dominated by new friendships, experiences, and relationships that are far less regimented and stressful than Miguel’s time with the Knights. It seems that finally, he might be happy.

Sugar feels especially relevant to the baseball season currently underway because it grapples with an important question: when is the right time to walk away? For an institution like MLB, that question is far more complicated since its very legacy is at stake. But the scenario is also tough for individual players to consider as well, even the superstars of the world like Mike Trout who are deemed superhuman by their fans. The best player in baseball reportedly struggled mightily with the decision to return in 2020 citing his wife’s pregnancy and family health as major factors. Ultimately, he decided to play, but obviously seriously considered stepping away (of course, the dude hit a home run in his first at-bat as a father).

I love baseball. Mostly because it’s a sport that inspires real reflection. Not only in the fans watching a game, or a moviegoer getting enveloped in a fictional story of triumph, but in the real players and fictional baseball characters themselves. So why do so many baseball films refuse to seriously depict the extended periods of waiting and wondering that occurs in a player’s life during the long, roller-coaster journey of a career? Probably because it more accurately reflects real life than the heroic tropes both cinema and sporting institutions at large love to promote.

Sugar specifically pays close attention to these small moments of reflection. It’s a lovely, empathetic film that understands these are people first and players second, and that sometimes, the old adage “there’s no I in team” is dead wrong.


Where to Watch

Major League and Major League II
Eight Men Out


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Until next time,