The following is sourced by a brilliant new independent film, The Last Out, by Michael Gassert and Sami Khan, which I had the pleasure of viewing as part of the Centre Film Festival here in Philipsburg, Pa. I had an opportunity to meet and interview the film-makers during the festival.
The film does not have distribution yet, so I am not sure when the readership here will have a chance to watch it. There are spoilers in the following article, but this is not a film review, as such, but a treatment I hope knowledgeable baseball people, such as here at Pittsburgh Baseball Network, would appreciate.
We as baseball fans have an interest in what Co-Director Gassert calls “The commodification of human beings.” It isn’t human trafficking, I suppose, if it’s done in the name of Major League Baseball.
We, as residents of the United States, have a geopolitical milieu around immigration that is heated, but seldom viewed from the perspective of the powerlessness of labor.
I am sure such a film as The Last Out will make its way to your screens somehow. It gave me a lot to think about. Let’s take a journey.
The Odyssey of Happy Oliveros
by Shawn Inlow
A young man ties a weighted tire to a harness and runs, dragging the obstinate weight along a dirt track inside an aging, empty baseball stadium. The warm Costa Rican breeze stirs dust devils in his wake. The weight impedes his progress, but it also makes him stronger.
He is a specimen, chiseled in a form fitting sky-blue lycra work out shirt. In the batter’s box, his stance is open and his swing is long and easy, lining baseballs into the outfield. His smile is infectious.
“Happy. How much do you want to sign for?” asks his coach, Julio Villalon.
“I’ll take five million,” says the refugee from Baracoa, Cuba.
“One million, you will go and I will follow you.”
“If I get five million, I’ll build you a statue.”
It is 2015 and Happy Oliveros is one of an exodus of Cuban players newly allowed to sign with U.S. baseball teams, but only if they can establish residency outside of Cuba.
“I pitched for five years in Cuba and I’m known for that,” says one of Happy’s roommates, “Carlitos” Gonzalez, a small, bulldog of a pitcher.
“When I left Cuba, I went through Ecuador. It was in Ecuador I bumped into Happy. … As I was all alone, it lifted my spirits. To have a friend in a foreign country gave me strength to keep going. We crossed Columbia and Panama to get here to Costa Rica. At times we didn’t have anything to eat or anywhere to sleep. And many times our bed was the ground we stood upon.”
“Meeting up with Carlos was like a blessing from God,” says Happy. “But I also met up with Victor Baro. And he is the best thing that happened to me in my life.”
“We’re all brothers here,” says Baro. “Because we all have the same dream. To sign with a major league team.”
Happy, Baro, and Carlos live among other players in housing subsidized by a Cuban-American sports agent. The agent provides food, housing and training in Costa Rica, but will also take twenty percent of a player’s signing bonus.
In Los Angeles, California, we are introduced to that agent, Gustavo Dominguez, driving around his wealthy neighborhood.
“This guy is going over my grass,” says Dominguez. “I gotta tell him.”
Gus speaks in Spanish to an unseen laborer, telling him to be more careful and stay off the grass. Gus’s home is a stark contrast to the living conditions of his players, and he is arranging a flight to Costa Rica for what amounts to a very big day; tryouts for his players that will be attended by 27 major league scouts.
“I have represented Cuban players for 23 years,” says Gus. “During the 90’s, the first ten players who defected came to me.”
Co-Director Sami Khan explained that the impetus for the film began with Dominguez, who’d been jailed for his role in smuggling players stateside.
“Yeah, we started (the film) with Gus because we believed his BS,” said Khan. “We thought it was gonna happen. What drew us to Gus was that in the late 2000’s he was prosecuted by the U.S. government, probably wrongfully, for his role in basically paying off a smuggler.”
“So we thought we were covering basically a redemption story about a guy out of jail who has this second chance to make it and we were buying the line,” said Khan. “We were gonna tell this hopeful story.”
But when the film-makers got to Costa Rica, their focus slowly started to pivot.
Gassert recalled the scene in the film after the first showcase.
“These guys were… joking around, making chicharrons, playing dominoes, (and it) felt familiar and right. Carlos was like, ‘Hey, what is this about? When is it coming out?’ and we didn’t know. But there was something about being rooted in the players that felt right to us. We really wanted to stick with these guys and understand their story and what it meant for them. So when it was time to make a choice whether to follow Happy or stay in Costa Rica, it was obvious to follow them wherever they took us.”
* * *
On the day of the tryouts, you can feel the pressure; almost smell the money.
“God said to Baro, ‘I’m gonna give you an arm and you’re going to be a pitcher in life. Whatever you do with that is up to you,” said Assistant Coach Roberto Munoz. “The difference I see between Baro and Carlitos? Baro is lazy. Baro doesn’t want to train. You have to beg him. ‘You gotta do thirty pitches today,’ .. ‘I don’t feel like it.’ Whereas Carlitos will come and give you 110 percent. There’s plenty of Carlitoses. There’s plenty of Baros. Everywhere. But they look for the type of a kid that people will fall in love with. That…HERO.”
The tryouts go well for the players. Baro is hitting 94 on the radar gun as the scouts circle and horse-trade with Gus. Carlos, the “little pitcher,” is known for his time pitching in Cuba.
“I think this is a good group of guys,” says Gus. “I think there’s a couple guys who could be in the $20 million range… Every guy is gonna get signed and we’ll see where they land and for how much.”
Co-Director Gassert said there was a scene that got cut from the film where the players were told one of their teammates from Cuba, Yoan Moncada, signed for $60 million with the Red Sox.
“They were like, ‘That’s great because he’s on a level with us.’ So they expected to be signed,” Gassert said.
But something went wrong. Gus had rushed the showcase betting the players’ residency paperwork would come back from the government on time. It did not. Meaning the players were not free agents at the time of the tryout, and thus, could not be signed.
Months passed. The market cooled. And Happy, Carlos, and Baro remained at the academy training, waiting. During this time, the film begins to reveal the pressure on Dominguez. He’s got investors too and money is getting tight.
Happy received a letter informing him he was cut and that he had to leave the academy. With nothing to rely on, he decided to emigrate to the U.S. and continue to pursue his dream.
Because Happy Oliveros is a charismatic baseball player, it is easy to root for him as he travels north. He endures the humiliation of selling his only belongings cheaply to have enough money to pay bribes to police and border smugglers alike. He winds up jailed and on the streets, far from the days of dreaming of millions of dollars.
“Don’t you think he could have helped me?” says Happy one night on the streets in Nicaragua. “Signed me for at least $100,000? He could have said, ‘Happy, this is all I can sign you for. That’s all you get. Period. At least you have signed. He gets his commission… He could have helped me. This guy even signed fucked up players. But no. … They didn’t want to help me. Can you tell me I’m not worth $100,000? $50,000? Give me a fucking break.”
Gus agreed in an interview on camera. “I could have signed each one of these guys for $100,000. That’s not what we’re here for. I make investments in this company because it is a business. I’m there to sign a baseball player for what I believe he’s worth.”
Back at Gus’s baseball academy in Costa Rica, Baro and Carlos had by then been training for almost two years, but the trust had drained out of the players after Happy was cut. The players understood the same thing could happen to them and their performance suffered.
“When Happy got cut,” said Gassert, “…. Gus didn’t break the law but he maybe broke an ethical code to these guys… Happy is a special person. And I think he understood the film before we did. What you see on the screen is really how he is.”
Gassert, incredibly, stayed with Happy on his journey, filming the dangers all along the way.
“In terms of the border crossings, I was lucky I had Sami looking out for me one country ahead. But, you know the decision to cross that river (into Mexico)? You know personal safety was aside at that point. We were traveling as a group. We were looking out for each other. There was a three month old baby with us.”
Gassert was jailed in the same Mexican detention facility as Happy but he said as a white American with a blue passport, he knew that he would “probably” be alright; that the real risk was to the footage they’d taken en route to Mexico. When they were released they were told they’d better get to the U.S. border quickly to avoid arrest.
“I’ll achieve my dream,” said Happy. “And when I get there, keep training and see what happens.”
“All we have to do,” said one traveling companion, “Is cross the border and touch American soil, and that’s it; Americanized!”
“When thinking about American culture,” said Gassert, “I try not to focus on just the U.S. I mean the Americas are huge. When you look at our story, the dream that these guys have is truly an ‘American dream.’ A Pan-American dream. I think so many people in this hemisphere think that no matter what their circumstances, they can supersede their condition and make a better life for themselves. So we thought that was a really transcendent story. One worth telling.”
“I think we are at this inflection point in the culture here about the value of work,” said Khan. “Where we kind of shift who profits from labor. These guys are creating tremendous value for Major League Baseball. For everyone else. We can enjoy the fruits of their labor in the comforts of our living rooms, but the players, whether they are Cuban, Dominican or American guys who go to the minors and make $15k per year playing for a Double-A team. They sacrifice so much so that we can enjoy it every night at 7:05 p.m. There is something that we just stumbled into, but we hope is resonant.”
Happy was one of the last to qualify for U.S. residency under “wet foot, dry foot.” In January of 2017, President Obama ended the special immigration status for Cubans. Carlos Gonzalez made a similar journey as Happy to the United States. Victor Baro last pitched in 2018 for Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League.
By meeting the directors and letting them tell the story of, not only these three players but many others, I feel as though I can understand the plight of immigrants of all stripes in a new way. These immigrants just happened to be baseball players. The story-telling of Michael Gassert and Sami Khan makes “The Last Out” a human one and not just a news or sports story that we can consume and forget about.
Imagine the millions of stories.
These players never played Major League Baseball. But many never even get this close, so fraught is the plight of these players.
The film is dedicated, in fact, to two such players who were with Happy in Costa Rica. One, who the Yankees wanted to sign, was murdered and another died of electrocution fixing something on a roof.
You know, just up the road from where I live here in Philipsburg, Pa., is a former private prison that has been converted to house detainees from the Mexican border. I wonder if they are any different than Happy Oliveros.