“Field of Dreams” does touch on one key insight, that economic ruthlessness is as much a source of injustice as racial intolerance. Adulated and (nowadays) overpriced though they may be, ballplayers are just fancy chattel working for “the masters,” as Bingo Long puts it, and slaves to those who control the means of production. That’s the theme underlying an overlooked, sentimental gem from 1990, Robin B. Armstrong’s “Pastime.”
It takes place in 1957, when a young black pitcher entering the clubhouse of an all-white D-ball team doesn’t cause much of a stir anymore. Tyrone Debray (Glenn Plummer) is as shy as he is talented, and he catches the eye of 41-year-old reliever Roy Dean Bream (William Russ), who becomes the kid’s mentor. Bream himself is no hot commodity — his claim to fame is a trick pitch and one golden moment in the majors when he surrendered a grand slam to Stan Musial. With his value exhausted, he’s a liability. Not so Debray; by the end he’s packing stadiums. But what will happen when he can no longer produce? Will he, like Bream, be discarded?
Flash-forward four decades and Debray might well have turned out like Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes) in Tony Scott’s “The Fan” (1996) — an MVP outfielder with a $40 million contract from the San Francisco Giants. A perfectionist, Rayburn pushes himself to prove his worth, getting injured in the process. The resulting slump earns the ire of the fans, but also the scarily intensifying support of unemployed knife salesman Gil Renard (Robert De Niro), the Rupert Pupkin of sports talk-radio callers. Though entertaining throughout, the film eventually unravels into a confusing mess involving fathers and sons, stalking, kidnapping, murder, and a nasty souvenir found in a refrigerator. But underneath it all is the sobering observation that, despite the money and fame, a ballplayer is just another property.
Which brings us back to the Jackie Robinson story, but with a twist. The title player (Algenis Perez Soto) of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Sugar” (2008) carries the hopes of his extended Dominican family in his pursuit of a big league career in the United States. Barely 20, he’s spotted by a scout while playing on a Dominican farm team, and, like Robinson, he gets an offer to play in the minors with hopes of a career in the Show. Unlike Robinson, though, instead of being the only candidate from his background with the burden of proving his worth to the world, he’s one of many fighting for the job. Rather than ruin himself in the pursuit of that dream and risk becoming just one more broken castoff, Sugar finds a league of his own, and it’s not in baseball.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.