' Cinema Romantico: A Scene To Go Home With You: For Love Of The Game

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Scene To Go Home With You: For Love Of The Game

(I will now commence to ripping off the New York Times' exercise for the third year in a row...)

ESPN's Bill Simmons termed 2009's "Sugar" as "One of the 20 or 25 best sports movies ever. Deeply affecting. Brilliantly executed." He said his only "critique" of the film was its lack of a so-called "chill scene." Oh, Mr. Simmons, how I plead to differ.

In Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's miraculous film, Algenis Perez Soto is Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a pitcher in a Dominican baseball academy. Yes, he's being groomed but these early scenes still maintain a light-heartedness, guys playing because they want and like to play. Eventually Sugar is upgraded to a Class A American team in the eerie cornfields of Iowa ("Where's I-A?"). He is supremely talented, of course, and he knows that his family back home is relying on him to strike it big in order to elevate them from the confines of poverty. He is indoctrinated into this most foreign of lands primarily by a friend, Jorge (Rayniel Rufino), on the team who has already been through all this before and intially Sugar does well.

But he gets injured. His play suffers. Jorge is no longer making the cut and rather than return to the Dominican Republic he lights out for New York. Then another player on the team with whom Sugar had forged a small friendship is called up to the Double A team. Sugar's play and attitude spiral downwards. I assume you think you know where this story is going.

Except you don't. To discuss my favorite scene of the year I will have to reveal all spoilers (!!!!!) since it is, in fact, the film's final scene and the third act of "Sugar" was so refreshing I could have sworn I felt a warm Pacific ocean breeze wafting through the theater as I watched it. So tread carefully.

Knowing he is close to being removed from the team Sugar decides to leave before they can kick him out. He heads for New York to find his friend. And we see that "Sugar" is less a baseball movie than the story of an immigrant trying to find his place in this new world. This third act adventure is brief but handled with stunning economy and delicacy. He meets new friends once in NYC who reach out to him and offer assistance in various ways. He finds Jorge. He finds something he lost along the way....happiness. He finds something else, too.

Jorge tells him about a baseball league comprised of former Dominicans who came up through the academies just like them who did not make the cut with their respective major league franchises. They gather and play together in a local park. The last scene of the film shows Sugar joining them for the first time. You see him pitching with a smile he has not had since the earliest scenes in the movie. His joy in the game has been re-awakened. And then he heads to the bench, sits down, trades a few high fives with fellow players, and then he looks off to the side as his smile wanes. We see everything that has happened flash before him. Was it worth it? Did I make the right decisions? Am I where to want to be? Am I happy? And then he claps his hands a few times and the smile returns. FADE OUT.

Chills. All over my body.

In the Holiday Bowl on the evening of December 30 my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers were trouncing the Arizona Wildcats in the 4th quarter by the score of 33-0. Nebraska's epic defense had - to this point - held their opponent to an unfathomable total of 32 yards. But this Nebraska defense wanted more. It wanted to make one last statement. It wanted to shut out a supposedly superior Pac 10 Conference offense. And, thus, their all-world defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh, of his own valition, stayed in the game.

Suh is a surefire Top 5 pick in the coming NFL draft - perhaps he will even be the #1 pick - which, of course, promises a lucrative contract, a bounty of riches most men and women dare not dream. Yet here he was still playing in the Holiday Bowl. The outcome was no lounger in doubt. It was "meaningless" (emphatic emphasis on the quotation marks). Plus, it was raining. What if he got hurt? What then? The announcers brayed this opinion over and over on that last drive. "I'm fearful for the guy," said one announcer. "We're sitting on pins and needles," said another. "Why would he stay in this game?" they wondered. Even worse, my friend Matt, sitting to my left, on my couch, was braying this point over and over on the last drive. (For the record, Nebraska kept Arizona out of the end zone and preversed the first shutout in Holiday Bowl history.) I cannot even describe how much my blood was boiling.

The 2009 season of college football, the sport I hold so dear, was one of much, shall we say, negativity. The season started with a player from Oregon punching another player and literally being dragged away by a coach in lieu of attacking fans. A player at Florida was caught on video literally gouging the eyes of an opponent. Coaches at Kansas and South Florida resigned and were fired, respectively, after reported repeated physical and verbal abuses of the young players they are supposedly grooming into men. The former coach at Texas Tech may or may not have ordered a player locked away in an electrical closet as means to "treat" a concussion. The Cincinnati football coach abandoned his players for greener pastures prior to the biggest game in school history. The Tennessee coach abandoned his players after one shoddy season for much bigger bucks. The National Championship was won by Alabama, coached by a man who, three years earlier, told reporters with a straight face while still coaching the NFL's Miami Dolphins "I will not be the next coach at Alabama" only to become the next coach at Alabama a few days later.

But for one evening in the Holiday Bowl, a future NFL millionaire chose to stay on the field for several "meaningless" plays because to him they were entirely meaningful. He was one playing for one reason and one reason only - love of the game.

If you can't or refuse to understand such a notion, well, maybe you should watch that last scene in "Sugar". I think then you might just get it.

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