I saw a great film this past weekend that, among other things, gave me a newfound appreciation of the back story behind this 1977 Mario Soto card, the future All-Star pitcher’s first appearance among the cardboard gods.
Sugar, a 2008 film, follows the story of a pitcher from Mario Soto’s homeland, the Dominican Republic, who comes to America to try to make it to the big leagues. The pitcher, Miguel “Azucar” (“Sugar”) Santos, played by Algenis Perez Soto (no relation to Mario), is not yet out of his teens, and the only English he knows are baseball phrases he learned at the baseball academy that he dropped out of high school to join.
Because the actors in the film are all legitimate baseball players (many, including the star, Soto, were literally plucked from a baseball field by the film’s directors), the baseball action has a documentary-level authenticity. Also, the baseball shown in the film is never exploited for the heightened (i.e., fake) drama that so many baseball films have relied on and suffered from. Baseball has never been treated so respectfully and truthfully in a fictional film, and baseball has rarely, if ever, meant as much. For much of the film, baseball is the only familiar aspect in Sugar’s life as he tries to cope with a life of loneliness, alienation, and racial tension in a minor league town in Iowa. It also seems as if it is the only way he will be able to support his struggling family back home. While he is getting batters out, these burdens do not appear to be too heavy, but when he begins to experience the kinds of setbacks that he fears might lead to the end of his dream, the weight Sugar carries becomes so heavy that anyone who ever watches the film will feel as if they’re carrying a piece of it as an ache in the pit of their stomach.
The day after I saw the movie I started looking at this Mario Soto card. I hadn’t looked at it since childhood, and if I’d done so before seeing Sugar I probably would have taken note of his confident expression and paired it with my knowledge that within a few years Soto would be among the best pitchers in the game. I would have assumed that Soto was simply blessed with a gift, and he knew it, and doubt or pain never entered into his inevitable rise to the top. But then I flipped over this card yesterday and saw that the first line of statistics contained no statistics at all but the capital letters “On Disabled List.” I thought of Sugar limping around with a foot injury, banished from the game, watching from the stands as his team played. I imagined Mario Soto as a seventeen-year-old, unable to pitch. The following season, in Eugene, Oregon, he finally could take the mound, but just a little, 5 games and 30 innings pitched, suggesting that he was still struggling with injuries. (In later years, Soto shied away to a great extent from throwing any breaking pitches, fearing that doing so would cause another arm injury.) Besides physical problems, Soto had another less visible kind of difficulty that first season.
“My first year at Eugene, I remember being in tears after a clubhouse meeting because I didn’t understand a word,” he recalled in a 1984 Sports Illustrated article. A scan of the roster of the 1975 Eugene Emeralds suggests that Soto’s experience may have been even more difficult than Sugar’s. In the movie, which is set in the present day, Sugar has fellow Dominicans as teammates. In Mario Soto’s day, there were far fewer Dominicans playing in the U.S., and while the Cincinnati Reds were ahead of the curve with the scouting and development of Latin American players (when Soto reached the major league level, he joined fellow Dominicans Santo Alcala, Angel Torres, Pedro Borbon, and Cesar Geronimo), it appears that Soto was the lone player from his country while struggling through his first year in pro ball as an 18-year-old boy. I wonder if Soto could communicate with anyone that year—the only other player with a Hispanic name on the roster was a 20-year-old outfielder named Gabriel Rodriguez, and Rodriguez wasn’t even from a Latin American country, but from Louisiana, so who knows if he even spoke Spanish, and anyway he played so sporadically that it’s likely he was only around for a short while.
I wouldn’t have been able to hack it. So far away from home, so isolated, injuries making time away from the game much greater than time in the game. No one to even talk to. I couldn’t have done what Mario Soto did. But Mario Soto stuck it out. In the 1984 Sports Illustrated article on Soto, his manager, Vern Rapp, while justifying and disputing Soto’s reputation as a hothead, offered what can now be seen as an explanation of Soto’s ability to face down the crushing doubt and isolation of his earliest days in pro ball:
“Think of him as someone who grew up in the Depression, when things were tough and you had to be strong to become somebody. . . . When he was 14 he worked for 10 cents an hour in construction to support his family. Of course he’s going to fight to protect what’s his.”
Still in his teens in his second year of active duty in the minors, Soto’s body began to fill out, and he found several more miles per hour on his fastball, which enabled him to go 13 and 7 with a 1.87 ERA in Tampa. The following year, after proving himself at another higher level in the minors, he got the call up to the Reds, and the year after that, this card came out. He continued to shuttle back and forth from the majors to the minors for a couple more seasons, however, and only punched his ticket to the Show to stay when he became the first major leaguer to master the circle change, a pitch taught to him by Reds’ minor league pitching instructor Scott Breeden. (In this there is another echo in Sugar of Mario Soto’s story; Sugar begins to set himself apart from other players at his Dominican baseball academy when a visiting American scout shows him how to throw a spike curve.) With the circle change, which came out of a pitching motion identical to the one that unleashed a formidable fastball but was twenty miles per hour slower and had a sharp downward dip, Soto began blowing batters away. For the first five years of the 1980s he struck out more batters than any other pitcher in the majors, including Nolan Ryan.
In 2001, Soto was elected into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. He reflected on how far he’d come. “We didn’t have gloves, spikes, nothing,” he said of his boyhood in the Dominican Republic. “We played with bare hands and bare feet. To have come from that to making three All-Star teams is really something.”
It’s the kind of quote that generally drifts past my ears. Of course it’s tough to make the majors, I think, yawning. But after getting a better sense, from Sugar, of the road Soto travelled, I actually hear what he’s saying. To be a cardboard god, you have to go a long, long way, farther than most would be able or willing to go.
(Love versus Hate update: Mario Soto’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)