One day back around 2010, I was browsing in the DVD rental section–my, how times change–of my neighborhood gas station. I remember picking up the movie Sugar and reading the synopsis before setting it back down in favor of something else. I wasn’t that interested because Sugar sounded like a predictable story of a young man with big dreams who sees them dashed against cruel reality, and then either overcomes them to find success or collapses into a puddle of despair, clutching a handful of steroids.
And sure, this is a story of a young man with big dreams who sees them dashed against cruel reality, but the film anything but predictable. As the end credits rolled, I was astonished and thought to myself, “that’s it?” But it was a good version of “that’s it?”–the version that we all say to ourselves at various times throughout our real lives. I don’t want to spoil it, and I don’t want to give a full movie review (if that’s what you want, try Roger Ebert’s) but I want to express how delightfully this film zigged where other baseball movies zag. There’s no great success for Miguel “Sugar” Santos, but there’s no great failure either. In one scene, he and his Latin teammates get into a fight with some Caucasian meatheads in an Iowa nightclub, but the police don’t show up and there’s no tedious, moralistic aftermath. There’s a plot line where Santos flirts with the innocent teenage daughter of his host family, they kiss, and….that’s where it ends. No heart-rending kerfuffle with the host family–just a quiet ending to a non-starter romance. At one point, Santos dabbles with PEDs, but he doesn’t get busted and sent back to the Dominican. He just trips out a little on the mound and then it’s over.
Instead of all those tired tropes, we are treated to scenic Iowa vistas, funny lost-in-translation dialogue, and a story about a regular kid whose baseball talent happens to take him from the Caribbean to the Corn Belt. I think my favorite scene is a long unbroken shot where the camera follows Santos as he walks out of his hotel room, down the hallway, through the lobby, through a loud bar, through a casino/arcade, and into a bowling alley. The music is intense. What is he going to do? What is going to happen to him? The answer: not much. He sees some teammates bowling with some girls, and doesn’t feel comfortable approaching them. The music stops and he returns to his hotel room. Scene over. I love this movie.
I’ll stop gushing over Sugar, though I must say that I was so glad to have been spurred to watch this as part of the Minors in the Movies series–especially after slogging through sap like The Rookie, which is sort of Sugar’s polar opposite. Anyway, let us focus on the MLG elements of the movie.
While in the Dominican for the film’s first act, the one minor league detail that I noticed is a kid wearing a Charleston RiverDogs t-shirt. This reminded me of a documentary I once saw called Ballplayer: Pelotero that had several shots of minor league merch being sported by people in the D.R. I suppose that the players bring these items back to their homeland in the off-season or once they wash out of the minors. The Charleston shirt was a cool little detail.
Santos is signed by the fictional Kansas City Knights (no royalties for the Royals) and attends spring training in Arizona. While some of his cohort go to play for the AZL Knights, Santos is sent to play for the Bridgetown Swing, a fictionalized version of the real-life Swing of the Quad Cities. When he reads his assignment on a wall-posting, he humorously asks where “ee-ah” is–the “ee-ah” being IA, the postal abbreviation for Iowa.
It was a great choice to use Modern Woodmen Park (then called John O’Donnell Stadium) for this film, as it is one of the prettiest ballfields in the minors. The famous bridge over the Mississippi River is undoubtedly what inspired the filmmakers to change Swing of the Quad Cities to Bridgetown Swing. The place name change was a curious decision, however, and it reminds me of how in Major League: Back to the Minors, the Salt Lake Buzz were changed to the South Carolina Buzz. In this case, it seems to have been done to avoid the confusion of “Quad Cities,” but there may some trademarking issues too, since no single team in the film is presented wholemeal–despite all the fictional teams in the film using the uniforms and logos of real-life Midwest League teams. About those uniforms…
The short-lived Swing of the Quad Cities were one of the more audaciously-branded minor league teams of their (or any) era, and this photo (above) is a perfect encapsulation of how they were ahead of the curve with alternate jerseys–pinstripes, orange, powder blue, vests, etc. The logos and uniforms for the Bridgetown Swing in Sugar are identical to those used by Quad Cities, and I kept thinking about how this was arranged and when the film was shot. It bears mentioning that Sugar was released in 2008, and 2007 was the last year of the real-life Swing. I’d venture that they shot the movie in the final year of the Swing, or during the off-season(s) surrounding that season. Who knows? Maybe all the movie props were leftover merch after the switch back to the River Bandits was executed.
Enough about the Swing, though. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of opposing teams. As mentioned, the film uses made-up teams that are usually based on real teams, but they at least kept them within the Midwest League. It wasn’t as satisfying as the accuracy of The Rookie, but on the flipside, it wasn’t as maddening as the “who cares?” sloppiness of Back to the Minors. It was a little of both.
The first opponent we see is introduced by the announcer as “Wisconsin,” and here we have the real-life uniforms of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, or at least the uniforms that the T-Rats wore back in the aughts. I always liked that place name font (with snake-tail S) on the jerseys, and it’s a shame that they went for something more menacing and serious when they tweaked their visuals in 2011.
I’m not sure if there was a copyright issue or just lack of space, but for whatever reason, the scoreboard of the game used “Rattler” instead of “Rattlers” or the full “Timber Rattlers.”
Other game action is shown briefly or in a montage set to a song by the band TV on the Radio. Let’s buzz through the teams.
This vested black and yellow number looks to me like the uniforms of the South Bend Silver Hawks, but when they cut to the scoreboard, it says…
Wait? First Rattler and now Bulldog? Were there only seven letter spaces on the scoreboard? I racked my brain trying to think of what Bulldog could mean, and all I could come up with is that maybe it was a inspired by the Mahoning Valley Scrappers and their bulldog logo.
Then there’s this image of an unknown opponent, and the color scheme sort of matches that of Mahoning Valley….meh, I’m stretching a bit here. No idea who this mystery team is, and it might just be Swing catcher’s gear.
Speaking of made-up teams…
Later on in the film, there is a climactic scene in which Santos takes some sort of PED/stimulant before a pitching appearance against the Great Lakes Loons. I don’t remember hearing or seeing the full team name, but the nickname and Loons’ uniforms are presented clearly.
It was cool to see the Loons in the film, as they were shiny new in 2007, having just relocated from Battle Creek, MI, where they had been playing as the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays. I think of the Loons as being a recently-added minor league team, but here they are, well over a decade ago, with roughly the same branding scheme that they use today.
Unfortunately for Great Lakes fans, the Loons are used as something of a villainous opponent of the Swing. Santos, hopped up on drugs, inadvertently beans a Loon, who charges the mound spouting xenophobic phrases. This incites an all-out brawl between the Swing and Loons, but it happens peripherally to Santos’s pathos as he strides to clubhouse in a PED-induced haze after being ejected.
Right before the end of the film, after some plot shifts that I won’t spoil here, there is this cool scene in which former ballplayers say which teams they used to play for. In the middle of this sequence, we get this exchange:
Assuming that they are talking about Pedro Martinez, he pitched for the Albuquerque Dukes as a Triple-A farmhand from 1991-1993. In those days, the Padres’ Triple-A team was the Las Vegas Stars. Ah, dear readers, these are the moments that the MLG lives for.
Suffice it to say that Sugar was a sweet little movie. It’s one that I would recommend to both non-baseball fans or to those who like to break down the minutia of what it means to see the Swing facing off against the Loons in 2007. This movie is awesome, and I’m delighted that this project caused me to sit down and take it in.
Click here to read more entries in the Minors in the Movies series.