'The Last Out': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

The Last Out
A powerful true story of athletics and exile.

Sami Khan and Michael Gassert's documentary follows three Cuban baseball players who try to make it to America at all costs.

When it comes to baseball sayings that apply to real life, the term "swinging for the fences" couldn’t be more suitable for the three major-league hopefuls at the heart of Sami Khan and Michael Gassert’s gripping new sports documentary, The Last Out.

Focusing on a trio of Cuban defectors who live and train together in Costa Rica as they try to land a lucrative contract in the U.S., the film portrays just how high the stakes are for athletes who are betting not only their careers, but also their livelihood and that of their families back home, on a future that’s far from a guaranteed home run.

Shot over several years, in which we see the players’ destinies transformed by the whims of MLB scouts and drawn-out contract negotiations, The Last Out is a moving reminder of how hard it is to make it to the big leagues, especially when you hail from a country still subject to "the most enduring trade embargo in modern history," per Wikipedia.

Originally slated to premiere at Tribeca, the film has since made the rounds of various virtual festivals, with a stop at DOC NYC this month. It should be an easy pickup for a streamer looking to marry sports with social issues, at a time when the Cuban community still plays a significant role in the outcome of U.S. elections.

As opening archive footage reveals, baseball has been a major pastime in Cuba for many decades — in fact, for well over a century — and even Fidel Castro could be seen swinging a bat from time to time. But after the Cuban professional league was disbanded in 1961 and replaced with a nationalized one, players began to defect abroad, with an increasing number of them reaching the U.S. starting in the early 2000s.

This was because of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, initially enacted by the Clinton administration in the mid-'90s, which allowed any Cuban defector arriving on U.S. shores, whether by land or sea, to qualify for permanent resident status, and, eventually, citizenship.

Although this backstory isn’t fully outlined at the start of The Last Out, it helps provide some context for the three ballplayers that Kham and Gassert chose to follow. Two of them, Victor Baró and Carlos O. González, are pitchers — the first throws a mean slider and fastball, the second excels at curveballs and knuckleballs. The other player is the aptly named Happy Oliveros, a perpetually upbeat slugger who, when he’s not sprinting through the dirt with a tire roped around his waist, cooks homemade meals for his fellow ballers in their small Costa Rica apartment.

We soon learn that Oliveros and the others are part of a training camp funded by Gus Dominguez, a Cuban-American who has made a living — and a decent one at that, judging by the size of his house in Los Angeles — by investing in exiled players whom he then tries to sell off to the major leagues, keeping a 20 percent cut of the bonus.

Dominguez is interviewed throughout the documentary, and it’s hard not to judge him as a profiteer exploiting these desperate young talents for their market potential (he was convicted of smuggling in 2007 and spent five years in jail). At the same time, though, he’s giving them the rare chance to make their dreams come true.

In exchange for free room and board, as well as visits from professional scouts who arrive with their notepads and pitching speed sensors, the players accept to train day in, day out so that Dominguez can auction them off at the highest price possible. But as The Last Out soon reveals, the interests of the athletes and those of their sponsor are not completely aligned: Dominguez is trying to make enough of a profit off to cover his costs and then some, while Oliveros, Baró and González want to sign with any team that's interested, which would allow them to legally move to the U.S., not to mention earn enough money to provide for their families in Cuba.

The hopes gradually unravel for all three players, with the filmmakers concentrating on the plight of Oliveros, who, after he fails to get signed and is then booted out of the training camp, decides to reach the U.S. at any cost. From that point on, The Last Out shifts from a sports doc to a nail-biting account of how Oliveros, along with his cousin’s family, crosses through Central America and eventually Mexico, getting swindled, stopped by corrupt cops and, in one heartbreaking scene, is forced to sell off his baseball gear at a steep discount in order to pay for his passage.

That Oliveros accepts all this with what seems like a genuinely positive attitude is a testament to his resilience. As for the other players, they’re considered by Dominguez and his staff to have more potential, and so they remain in the training camp as scouts keep coming by and several deals are discussed that never seem to materialize. Per the press notes, The Last Out began production in 2014, and by the time we arrive closer to the present day, the destinies of each player are far from what they first imagined.

A title card toward the end of the movie explains that the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that made Dominguez' business possible was scrapped by the Obama administration in 2017 as it tried to open up relations with Cuba, including a new program allowing players to move directly to the U.S. One can only imagine what happened to that plan once Donald Trump came to power, and, with the 2020 elections, it may change again.

What The Last Out ultimately makes clear is that no matter who’s in charge, guys like Oliveros, Baró and González will keep trying to go pro in the U.S., their fates depending less on their talents than on the whims of scouts, agents, and a billion-dollar industry that fails to see how, for them, baseball is more than just a game.

Venues: DOC NYC; Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Trogon Productions, Oscura Film, Brew Media 

Cast: Happy Oliveros, Carlos O. González, Victor Baró, Gus Dominguez
Directors: Sami Khan, Michael Gassert
Producers: Michael Gassert, Jonathan Miller, Sami Khan
Editors: Carla Gutierrez, Mark Becker
Composers: Saul Simon MacWilliams, Billy Libby
Sales: UTA 

In Spanish and English
84 minutes