John Leguizamo Steps Up to the Plate for Dominican Ballplayers

"Wherever there’s a chance to make crazy dollars, because baseball is a crazy financial piggy bank, of course things are going to get a little corrupt."

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jim McIsaac / Getty Images

Actor John Leguizamo throws out the first pitch before the game between the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field on May 4, 2011.

The actor John Leguizamo—who voices Sid the sloth in the Ice Age movies, the fourth of which is already a blockbuster internationally and opens in the U.S. this week—makes no secret of the level of his fanaticism for baseball, but now he’s taking it a step further. As the narrator of the new documentary Ballplayer: Pelotero, in theaters July 13, he takes audiences through the stories of two young baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic. Fifty years after the 1962 season in which the Giants made waves with four early Dominican players—Matty Alou, Felipe Alou, Manny Mota and Juan Marichal—about one-fifth of professional baseball players are Dominican. But the young Dominican men who hope to make the big leagues live a hard life, the story of which encouraged Leguizamo to get involved in the project. Leguizamo spoke to TIME about the game, the film and how he thinks the MLB could fix things.

TIME: How did you get involved with Pelotero?

John Leguizamo: Bobby Valentine [a former Mets manager and one of the film’s producers]… knew I was a Mets fan. I’m so glad he took on this theme of what happens to all these young ballplayers in the Dominican Republic because you’ve got incredible talent, but obviously wherever there’s a chance to make crazy dollars, because baseball is a crazy financial piggy bank, of course things are going to get a little corrupt. Also, things are going to be very difficult for these kids whose families have everything invested in them making it—not everybody makes it. There’s a lot of heartbreak, a lot of dashed dreams and what happens to you when your whole life you’ve been preparing to be a ballplayer and you don’t make it to the major leagues. It’s a big letdown.

When did you start on the project?

I got involved halfway through. Bobby asked me to come in and he wanted me to do the narration. He showed me some of the footage and I go, This is so powerful, man, this is such a great story, I definitely want to be a part of it.

As someone who’s a big baseball fan, did you ever think about trying to go pro when you were a kid?

I was never that good. I mean, that’s why I’m a comedian. I played stickball, stoopball. We threw the pink little Spalding ball. If you grew up in New York, that’s what you used. I never even touched a real baseball until later in life.

(READ: Baseball Dreams: Striking Out in the Dominican Republic )

Were you aware of what was going on in the Dominican Republic before you started the project?

No, I thought everybody who made it, made it. I had no idea there was so much going on and so much heartbreak. I guess a lot of sports are like that. In America we have to police them and constantly keep a vigilant eye that kids aren’t being exploited.

Was there a particular fact that most shocked you?

What shocked me was here you have this amazing talent and they get so underpaid. The regular ballplayer is making like 50 times what these kids from the Dominican Republic are making. They just get paid nothing compared to the other guys, and they bring the same game. That’s the thing about sports. It’s like the only job where you can actually measure what you’re doing. There’s no other place where you can really measure—maybe banking you can measure how much bottom-line income you’re making—but in sports they can measure your exact contribution, because you have statistics. That’s the only place where real equality exists and where you can prove that somebody’s talent is what they have, regardless of religion, race or whatever.

From what I’ve read, it seems like the MLB is not totally happy with the film.

Of course not.

They’ve said it contains inaccuracies. What’s your take on that?

Man, that’s a whole other ballgame, so to speak. No pun intended. Of course they’re going to say that. They have to discredit the movie. You have to discredit it somehow so that it doesn’t become viral and hurt the major leagues. I guess that’s part of what the game is, the spin they have to put out there. Even if there were inaccuracies, you can’t deny what you saw: these kids trying to make it, the salary discrepancies, what happens to the kids who don’t make it, all the promises. You’ve heard already about kids who’ve changed their ages to get here. Obviously this is a dream for everybody, a huge dream and a huge opportunity to change their lives and their families’ lives. A lot is riding on these kids.

(MORE: TIME talks to John Leguizamo about blockbusters and Broadway)

But MLB has made some changes in the year after the movie was made. They say they’re supervising the age question a little more closely.

I hadn’t heard that. That’s great. I mean, what they have to do is just police what’s going on in the Dominican Republic and make sure all those kids are getting a fair shot. You’ve got to go look at the roots of what’s going on. You can’t just take these kids and bring them here without supervising. Here, we supervise high schools and all the scouting that’s going on to make sure kids are getting a fair shake, that there’s no exploitation, that they’re not bribing anybody.

Coming out of the project, do you feel now that there’s definitely a good guy and a bad guy in the situation?

You can’t really say that. Everybody becomes kind of guilty. I’m sure there are lot of other stories that are even worse that aren’t in the documentary. The parents become a part of it and the scouts. You have to look at the whole system and the whole system has to get fixed. We have to constantly police sports because it’s so tempting to do the wrong thing.

As a big baseball fan, what do you think is the allure of the sport for the young men? Is it just the money, or is there something special about baseball?

I think there’s a love for baseball and a love for the game. What better thing than to have this ability that you can make a living at and be proud of? Everybody wants to be proud of something. I think that’s what drives mostly everybody, to be able to put your name on something that you’ve done yourself and you’ve created.

(READ: MLB All-Star Game: A Case of Mid-Summer Stupidity)