Miguel "Sugar" Santos(Algenis Perez Soto) is a right-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republic. He never had the opportunity of a Stanford education like his American teammate Brad Johnson(Andre Holland), who has graduate school as a backup plan should a career in baseball not pan out. But here they both are, despite such disparate sociological backgrounds, on equal footing, temporary Iowaians in the clubhouse of the Class A affiliate for the Kansas City Swing, talking about their futures. "Sugar" shows how sports democratizes people, but still, differences remain. Without the luxury of a college education to fall back on, one would gauge Miguel's situation as a desperate one; it's Kansas City or bust, with the economical future of his family back in the Caribbean riding on that sweet knuckle curve he throws for strikes. He can't throw balls, right? Due to our western bias, we assume that Miguel is skillless, save for his ability to get batters out. In the very next scene, however, we learn this isn't true, as the pitching prospect fixes the drawer of his host family. Miguel's secret talent serves as the impetus for the film's unexpected divergence from the inspirational sports movie formula.
Back at the Dominican Republic training facility, posted on a locker room wall, Miguel and the other aspiring prospects look at the list of names with their corresponding assignments, as spring training has come to a close. Anybody who follows professional baseball closely, understands the significance of Miguel being allowed to leapfrog Rookie ball and going directly to Class A. The kid has talent. Touted, but not highly so, as the filmmakers decided to portray a modestly talented player, not a phenom, to better represent the unglamorous world of minor league baseball, even more so than Ron Shelton's "Bull Durham", since the surefire can't miss prospect(Brad) is a minor character, soon shipped off to Double A. Stateside for the first time, Miguel experiences the sensory overload that comes from being confronted by the exotica of a strange land, made easier, initially, with the availability of native speaking teammates showing him the ropes. America can be confusing. In "Half Nelson", the filmmakers' previous effort, a middle school teacher(played by Ryan Gosling) introduces the concept of dialectics to his pupils. Dialectics abound in "Sugar" too, for instance, Miguel's meeting of his host couple's virginal granddaughter Anne(Ellary Potterfield), a devout Christian, so soon after his encounter with the compliant women from the pay-per-view adult films he watches at the motel room. At a youth group meeting, Anne says that "spiritual accomplishments are more important," which sets the stage for the film's overriding dialectic: sports as a religion versus sports as a game, once Miguel loses his religion and doesn't get on the team bus heading on out to their next destination.
Church does nothing for Miguel. The Higgins(Earl and Helen, played by Richard Bull and Ann Whitney) are churchgoers. Even though the old couple are good people; they don't speak Spanish, a conspicuous and somewhat dubious distinction, since the old-timers have hosted so many Latin players. They're like missionaries. This language barrier between them becomes an issue after Miguel loses his native speaking buddies to promotions and roster cuts. After Miguel intentionally throws at an opposing player, causing an on-field melee, in the next scene, the slumping pitcher sits silently at the Higgins' dinner table like a disciplined child. Instead of words to explain his alienation, he cries, which earns a half-hug from Earl, who is, after all, a compassionate man, a good man, albeit an ignorant one. For Miguel, words are better; he's twenty, not twelve. With apologies to the novel "Shoeless Joe" by W.P. Kinsella, Iowa is not a "field of dreams" for Miguel; it's not the "heaven" as Ray(Kevin Costner) and his father deemed it in the Phil Alden Robinson movie. So Miguel goes to New York to become a carpenter's apprentice. He left the church, so to speak. Now that Miguel no longer has the cool cachet of professional ballplayer, "Sugar" challenges the audience to root for its protagonist outside the parameters of the "underdog" movie. Not only is Miguel a quitter, a notion that's antithetical to the genre, now he's just another illegal alien.