Photo: The Last Out tells the story of Happy Oliveros and other Cuban baseball players. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Miller / PBS / Provided by Cinema Tropical with permission.
Directors Sami Khan and Michael Gassert knew they wanted to tell a story about players’ journeys in Major League Baseball, but they weren’t sure who to focus on for their documentary. Through conversations, interviews and flights to Central America, they found their subject: Cuban baseball players who undertake a risky journey far from their native country in hopes of impressing professional scouts in the United States. United. Along the way, they face discouraging and devastating realities.
The documentarians’ efforts resulted in the new film The last exitpremieres tonight, October 3, on the Point of view program on PBS. Free streaming is available on PBS.org until November 2and the documentary will be available in Spanish and English.
Khan and Gassert’s cameras focus on baseball players Happy Oliveros, Carlos O. González and Víctor Baró, who face an uncertain future as they leave Cuba to train in Central America, perhaps without any way to return home one day. It’s a heavy proposition: leaving your home country permanently, and nothing is guaranteed on the other side. As too many players know, making it in the big leagues is never a certainty.
Khan, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker St. Louis Superman, said he had seen films about the players’ trip to the United States, but always thought there was an element missing. “We felt like there was something that was left out of the narrative, which was the risks these guys were taking to get to the big leagues,” Khan said in a recent Zoom interview. “There would be occasional newspaper articles about it or an ESPN Out of the lines thing, but we wanted to go beyond a simple news article to understand the risks these baseball players were taking by leaving their home countries and trying their luck in the major leagues. So that’s thematically where we started.
After beginning their research on the subject, Khan and Gassert found a Cuban-American sports agent who played a very influential role in creating a market for Cuban baseball players. The filmmakers reached out and explained their project.
“And finally he agreed to let us interview him, and at the end of that interview he mentioned that he had this group of baseball players in Central America, in Costa Rica, Cuban baseball players that “He was coaching hoping to get them to sign major league contracts,” Khan said. “And he asked us if we wanted to go, and of course, we jumped at the chance.”
At first, Gassert thought the film would end up centering on this sports agent and that the documentarians would weave a story of redemption from his ups and downs, which were documented by numerous media outlets. However, after visiting the Central American training center, they realized there was more to it.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm around these players,” Gassert said. “We really wanted to get to know these guys, and I think (the agent) was happy to have the camera crew there and get these guys used to being on camera. Baseball is performative, so that part was pretty easy. But it really wasn’t until after that first showcase, and we went to their apartments, when they were partying and playing dominoes and making chicharrones, where we could feel the brotherhood and the excitement. These guys knew each other from playing in the national series in Cuba, but they weren’t necessarily the best of friends. But they found their compatriots with this same mission to sign with a major league team. There was so much hope and, as you see in the film, the Cuban market was at an all-time high.”
Gassert remembers that at one point González turned to the filmmakers and asked them when the film would be released and who the main subject would be. They didn’t know the exact answers at that point, but Khan and Gassert began to realize that these potential players were the dominant story.
“I remember being in the car with Sami on the taxi ride back to our hotel, and I looked at him,” Gassert said. “And I was like, ‘What do you think?’ I think that’s our story here with these guys,” and we came back shortly after to shoot another showcase. We were like, “Carlos, yeah, we want to talk about you guys, when you sign, when you go to the minor leagues. ” You don’t think at that moment to say, “Yeah, we want to be with you too, when your girlfriend dumps you, and you have nowhere to go and the shit hits the fan. That’s really where a lot of people responded to the intimacy or the feel of the storytelling. Our style that we’ve gone into is just getting to know these players, putting ourselves in their shoes, not just going somewhere, extracting something from them and leaving. We formed lasting friendships and relationships with these guys, and that’s what took us on their journey. Our instinct has always been to stay with them as much as possible.
What Khan and Gassert ultimately discover is that these three players and their path to the American baseball dream are fraught with challenges. There are broken promises, immigration setbacks and “dark realities,” as PBS puts it. They are stuck between two countries, far from their families and seeing first-hand what it means to live in the fractured relationship between the United States and Cuba.
By John Soltes / Editor / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
The Last Out, directed by Sami Khan and Michael Gassert, will premiere in POV on PBS on Monday, October 3, with streaming available on PBS.org through November 2. Both Spanish and English versions of the film will be available, and the documentary is being presented in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. Click on here for more information.