Cuban baseball culture produces great players with little space to grow. Many famous Major League Baseball players in the United States defected from Cuba and did so because American recruiters can’t travel to Cuba to find new players directly. The market for Cuban players has waxed and waned over time, and some Americans have found ways around the rules to make investments in human beings who want a shot at their dream.
Michael Lewis, writer of the influential baseball book Moneyball, published an essay about Cuban baseball in Vanity Fair back in 2008, Commie Ball: A Journey to the End of Revolution. It’s worth a read, particularly after viewing The Last Out, a fantastic documentary by Sami Khan and Michael Gassert that depicts the journeys taken by Cuban players who dream of a life playing for Major League Baseball and those that would take advantage of them.
We’re introduced to Gus Dominguez, a Cuban-American baseball agent who specializes in scouting Cuban players for American recruiters. He has a scheme to transport players from Cuba to Costa Rica. Gus pays for their lodging in a group apartment, where they can train together and work to earn residency in their new home. Once they’re ready, he flies American recruiters in for a showcase. Dominguez takes a cut of their signing bonus, haggling in hopes of catching a million-dollar payday to cover his expenses and make some profit on the side.
Dominguez was jailed at one point on charges of human trafficking, related to a number of players he brought across country from Miami to Los Angeles. That was before his Costa Rica scheme. The Last Out doesn’t delve deep into Dominguez’s motivations outside of the potential profits — the Lewis article is a sympathetic articulation of his past that I don’t entirely buy — because here, Dominguez is simply the face of a system Khan and Gassert depict boldly: the way in which American sports, and culture at large, exploits poor and impoverished communities at the altar of our entertainment.
Happy Oliveros, Carlos Gonzalez and Victor Ernesto Baro are three players Dominguez recruits to his Costa Rica training camp. The three players are followed throughout their time with Dominguez and subsequent exile from his good graces when they fail to attract successful bids. In one case, we follow a player through Central America and Mexico to the Southern border of Texas, seeking asylum (The Last Out was filmed prior to the lifting of protected status for Cuban refugees as part of the Obama Administration’s overtures to Cuba and before President Trump started fucking with the asylum system out of racist cruelty). Another player spurns the documentary team for a long period of time. The last is stuck in Dominguez’s training purgatory for an extended period of time, occasionally giving verbal offers but nothing concrete as his dreams as dangled and then slashed away.
Through their stories, The Last Out humanizes the people left behind as detritus in the economic landscape of big sports. Each of them come to Costa Rica expecting their raw talent to push them forward to a huge dream and deal with the consequences when their bodies simply weren’t precisely what potential buyers wanted. The allegory to human chattel markets is on the surface here. Nobody deserves a spot in the MLB, but everyone deserves dignity, and the way they’re treated — and what they subsequently suffer through — does its best to strip them of it.
It is difficult to watch The Last Out and not see commentary on many of the political issues this campaign season. The sheer level of general disdain toward immigrants by the current administration is depressing — which isn’t to say the systems in place during the past few administrations were perfect, but come on. Additionally, the way in which athletes who do wield their political influence are treated like shit by certain segments of the populace — and the emphasis on returning student athletes to play during a pandemic … it’s all garbage. The Last Out never becomes a PowerPoint presentation or issue sheet, nor does it betray specifically political perspective even when it could. It is profound human storytelling, and that’s all it needs to depict and critique the world in which we live.
The 29th Annual Heartland Festival will be held October 8-18, 2020, with both virtual and drive-in screening options. Check out the official website for screening times and ticket information.