"Sugar" and Racial Capitalism in Major and Minor League Baseball
By Serapia Kim
The film Sugar (2008) tells the story of a 19-year old Dominican pitcher named Miguel Santos, nicknamed ‘Sugar.’ Like many peers his age in Dominican Republic who live in poverty, he dreams of playing in the U.S. Major Leagues Baseball (MLB), a lucrative career that would allow his family to escape poverty. Yet, as this film reveals, the training process in the U.S. is grueling, and his experience is made even more difficult by the process of adjusting to a new culture, learning a new language, and trying to make a ‘home’ in the foreign, isolated places that are the rural training towns.
Sugar tells a story of the transnational phenomenon that is American minor league baseball and its international recruiting. In Dominican Republic, baseball academies started to boom in the 1980s as more and more young boys sought a career in baseball to escape poverty. These boys, most of whom are in their (early) teens, are drafted by American buscones, or street agents. Sugar, too, was scouted and brought to the U.S. by these buscones. By coming to the U.S., these boys forgo their education and are separated from their family. Made even more vulnerable by their inability to speak proficient English and the difficulty of finding alternative jobs outside of baseball, these boys are exploited at the hands of their coaches. Documentation of these systemic abuses include being pressured to take performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), buscones falsifying the boys’ age so they can be legally signed on to a team, and being paid half the amount of American players.
This phenomenon of recruiting foreign, predominantly Afro-Latino players is one of “racial capitalism.” Professor Nancy Leong summarizes how racial capitalism manifests in the U.S. as “white individuals and predominantly white institutions us[ing] nonwhite people to acquire social and economic value.” A common example of racial capitalism in practice is corporations and academic institutions displaying photos of their employees or students of color to showcase their ‘diversity,’ even going as far as to photoshop them in. In the case of baseball, white buscones recruiting young Afro-Latino players to boost their teams’ ranking and earning potential fits into this framework.
Interestingly, how well the MLB ‘does diversity’ is under scrutiny and meticulously measured through data. It receives an annual racial and gender report card, in which it gets graded for its diversity in the hiring of players and management. The 2019 report card shows that it received a B- for its racial hiring (which measures that of players and managers), with 41% of players being of color. But it highlights a concern that only 8.4% of its players are Black. Beyond the obvious concern for a lack of Black players that is apparent in this report, it is troubling that the authors of this report separate “African-American/African-Canadian/Black” players from “Latino” players, effectively erasing the existence of Afro-Latino players. Except for a few instances in the report in which they recognize that some people are of “2 or more races,” the way they present their data in the tables (an excerpt shown below) reveal that they perceive Blackness and Latinidad to be mutually exclusive, and that Afro-Latinos are perhaps relegated to the all-too-familiar “Other” racial category; that said, it is unclear whether Afro-Latino players get coded as African-American (since the international players are not American), Latino, or Other.
The process of recruiting non-white bodies so the MLB can be more diverse is little more than tokenization if these people are inadequately supported. This is true in the case of the MLB, as buscones scout young Afro-Latino players who have been trained by the multi-million dollar industry that is the Dominican Republic’s baseball academies. As Rafael Pérez, the MLB director of Dominican operations, says, “The impact of the academies has been huge. In the Dominican Republic, 450-500 players are being signed a year, and one of the reasons for this is that each team has optimal conditions to develop them.” Indeed, these academies seem more like factories for developing talented baseball-playing bodies, a sentiment depicted in the film as Sugar is expected to ‘just keep working harder’ when he faces challenges in his performance. And despite Sugar’s hard work, he does not make it to an MLB team. The reality is that he is not an anomaly; only 3% of Dominican trainees make it into an MLB team, compared to 12% of American trainees, as shown below.
Let us unpack this racialized disparity. Despite the fact that Dominican boys are trained and scouted at an early age, only a quarter as many make it to an MLB team. In fact, this disparity persists in every tier of the league and gets worse as the prestige (and pay) increases. This is in alignment with the concept of whiteness as property, an idea popularized by professor Cheryl Harris. Harris asserts that whiteness is prized across institutions in the U.S. (and, arguably, globally as well), due to conscious and unconscious biases that favor whiteness. In the baseball industry, this bias translates to white people being more likely to being hired and promoted, which is especially true in management positions, as reflected in the findings of the MLB report card. The effect of these hiring and promotion processes is that whiteness is being valued like any other property one can own. This persistent preference for whiteness against the backdrop of discrimination against Blackness means that Afro-Latino players like Sugar are hyper-scrutinized, having to overcome the barrier of being Black in a mostly white institution that is the MLB.
Being a victim of racial capitalism means being made vulnerable for one’s status as a racialized other, one without the protection that comes with being a white American citizen. In addition to anti-Black discrimination, these Dominican players are exploited for being young, poor, non-English speaking, and non-American citizens; many of these qualities can be summarized as anti-immigrant prejudice. A combination of these vulnerabilities means they are not able to fight for fair wages or resist taking PEDs. These players embody the effect of this racialized disparity as “Dominican [players] test positive for banned substances at a far greater rate than players from anywhere else.” They are made to be dependent on the very people who are exploiting their bodies and skimming their wages because they are not taught English, rarely complete the schooling expected of their age, and are bound by coaches who provide the money and housing they need to survive.
There is one particular poignant scene in the film that demonstrates how racial capitalism manifests in Sugar’s life. He has not been pitching well for a few games and is told by his coach to sit out while Salvador Torres, a fellow Dominican player, makes his successful debut as a pitcher. In the screenshot below, Salvador joins Sugar in the benches with a satisfied smirk while Sugar sits with a towel over his face, exhausted. The masking of Sugar’s identity symbolizes the fungibility of Dominican players—they are recruited en masse, having been sold a dream of success, but are dropped from the team when they do not perform to the standards of the league.
Screenshot from Sugar (2008).
Sugar, like other Dominican recruits, leave their homes and their families to meet the U.S. demand for their talent. They are like products being imported for American consumption in an industry that sees their bodies as pools of talent. They are made to be faceless, fungible, and disposable as they can be easily replaced by their peers. And when are dropped from their team, they are left to fend for themselves like Sugar, lost in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home. Yet, Dominican players like Sugar are usually ill-equipped to find alternative career paths, not having finished (higher) education, not having proficient English skills, and not having American citizenship. None of these were requirements for playing in the minor leagues, for it was primarily their baseball talent that was desired by their teams and the baseball industry at large. But once they are seen as unprofitable, they are left in a country that demands far more from them to be able to work. This the price of being Afro-Latino in the baseball industry in the U.S.
By focusing on one sport, and one mechanism of facilitating Dominican migration to the U.S., Sugar centers the precarious conditionality of belonging in the U.S. It tells the story behind a larger phenomenon of economic migration and racial capitalism between the U.S. and Dominican Republic. After all, "Dominicans represent one of the largest Latin[x] immigrant groups in the United States and the fastest growing immigrant Latin[x] population in New York City,” the city to which Sugar himself moves after leaving the minor league team on his own terms, a rare privilege due to his connections in the U.S. Sugar is unique in its centering of a story that highlights a Dominican baseball player’s agency, despite working in an industry that makes his belonging contingent.
Serapia Kim '19 is a graduate of Williams College with a B.A. in Political Economy. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.
Harris, Cheryl. 1993. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106 (8): 1707-1791. https://ssrn.com/abstract=927850
Leong, Nancy. 2013. “Racial Capitalism.” Harvard Law Review 126 (8): 2151-2226. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2009877